Hezbollah tells Iran it would fight alone in any war with Israel

Lebanon News
2024-03-15 | 04:37
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Hezbollah tells Iran it would fight alone in any war with Israel
Hezbollah tells Iran it would fight alone in any war with Israel

With ally Hamas under attack in Gaza, the head of Iran's Quds Force visited Beirut in February to discuss the risk posed if Israel next aims at Lebanon's Hezbollah, an offensive that could severely hurt Tehran's main regional partner, seven sources said.

In Beirut, Quds chief Esmail Qaani met Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the sources said, for at least the third time since Hamas' deadly Oct. 7 attacks on southern Israel and Israel's devastating retaliatory assault on Gaza.

The conversation turned to the possibility of a full Israeli offensive to its north, in Lebanon, the sources said. As well as damaging the Shi'ite Islamist group, such an escalation could pressure Iran to react more forcefully than it has so far since Oct. 7, three of the sources, Iranians within the inner circle of power, said.

At the previously unreported meeting, Nasrallah reassured Qaani he didn't want Iran to get sucked into a war with Israel or the United States and that Hezbollah would fight on its own, all the sources said.

"This is our fight," Nasrallah told Qaani, said one Iranian source with knowledge of the discussions.

Calibrated to avoid a major escalation, the skirmishes in Lebanon have nonetheless pushed tens of thousands of people from their homes on either side of the border. Israeli strikes have killed more than 200 Hezbollah fighters and some 50 civilians in Lebanon, while attacks from Lebanon into Israel have killed a dozen Israeli soldiers and six civilians.

Israeli security sources have said previously that Israel did not seek any spread of hostilities but added that the country was prepared to fight on new fronts if needed. An all-our war on its northern border would stretch Israel's military resources.

Iran and Hezbollah are mindful of the grave perils of a wider war in Lebanon, two of the sources aligned with the views of the government in Tehran said, including the danger it could spread and lead to strikes on Iran's nuclear installations.

The US lists Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and has sought for years to rein in Tehran's nuclear program. Israel has long considered Iran an existential threat. Iran denies it is seeking a nuclear weapon.

For this story, Reuters spoke to four Iranian and two regional sources, along with a Lebanese source who confirmed the thrust of the meeting. Two US sources and an Israeli source said Iran wanted to avoid blowback from an Israel-Hezbollah war. All requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

The US State Department, Israel's government, Tehran, and Hezbollah did not respond to requests for comment.

The Beirut meeting highlights strain on Iran's strategy of avoiding major escalation in the region while projecting strength and support for Gaza across the Middle East through allied armed groups in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, analysts said.

Qaani and Nasrallah "want to further insulate Iran from the consequences of supporting an array of proxy actors throughout the Middle East." said Jon Alterman of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, responding to a question about the meeting.

"Probably because they assess that the possibility of military action in Lebanon is increasing and not decreasing."

Already, Tehran's carefully-nurtured influence in the region is being curtailed, including by Israel's offensive against Hamas along with potential US-Saudi defense and Israel-Saudi normalization agreements, as well as US warnings that Iran should not get involved in the Hamas-Israel conflict.

Qaani and Nasrallah between them hold sway over tens of thousands of fighters and a vast arsenal of rockets and missiles. They are main protagonists in Tehran's network of allies and proxy militias, with Qaani's elite Quds Force acting as the foreign legion of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

While Hezbollah has publicly indicated it would halt attacks on Israel when the Israeli offensive in Gaza stops, US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein said last week a Gaza truce would not automatically trigger calm in southern Lebanon.

"If there is a ceasefire in (Gaza), there are two schools of thought in Israel, and my impression is that the one that would recommend continuing the war on the border with Hezbollah is the stronger one," said Sima Shine, a former Israeli intelligence official who is currently head of the Iran program at the Institute for National Security Studies:

A senior Israeli official agreed that Iran was not seeking a full-blown war, noting Tehran's restrained response to Israel's offensive on Hamas.

"It seems that they feel they face a credible military threat. But that threat may need to become more credible," the official said.

A war in Lebanon that seriously degrades Hezbollah would be a major blow for Iran, which relies on the group founded with its support in 1982 as a bulwark against Israel and to buttress its interests in the broader region, two regional sources said.

"Hezbollah is in fact the first line of defense for Iran," said Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Yemen.

If Israel were to launch major military action on Hezbollah, the Iranian sources within the inner circle of power said, Tehran may find itself compelled to intensify its proxy war.

An Iranian security official acknowledged however that the costs of such an escalation could be prohibitively high for Iran's allied groups. Direct involvement by Iran, he added, could serve Israel's interests and provide justification for the continued presence of US troops in the region.

Given Tehran's extensive, decades-long ties with Hezbollah, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to put distance between them, one US official said.

According to the Iranian insider, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not inclined to see a war unfold on Iran, where domestic discontent with the ruling system last year spilled over into mass protests.

"The Iranians are pragmatists, and they are afraid of the expansion of the war," said Iryani.

"If Israel were alone, they would fight, but they know that if the war expands, the United States will be drawn in."


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