In an incident the likes of which we’ve rarely seen before, Hezbollah personnel — fresh from launching rocket attacks into Israel — were intercepted at the weekend by enraged Druze villagers and taken into custody. Humiliatingly for Hezbollah, images of its top-secret rocket launcher — impounded in the back of a truck —were published online.
Local people had every right to be furious at their village being used as a missile launching site, because Israel did predictably respond with a barrage of rockets — the first such strikes against Lebanese soil in seven years. Hezbollah would have been the one shouting the loudest and denying all responsibility if those rockets had hit schools, hospitals and homes. Such Hezbollah attacks have nothing to do with “defending” Lebanon, and are all about cheap propaganda and goading a more destructive neighbor with little respect for human rights into a belligerent response. These strikes are criminally irresponsible at a moment when Lebanon teeters on the brink of total collapse.
Hezbollah’s provocations are just one element within a wider pattern of Iranian warmongering aimed at entrenching Tehran’s regionwide dominance, and enhancing its diplomatic leverage in nuclear negotiations.
Iran has decades of practice at incrementally escalating its aggressive activities, so the world scarcely notices how the balance of threat has evolved. Before 2006, Hezbollah’s missile capabilities were almost comical; if they hit anything, it was often by accident. But nobody, least of all Israel, is laughing about the missile capabilities of Hezbollah, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi or the Houthis today. Retired Israeli general Zvika Haimovich pointedly commented: “We are close to a point where Israel will have to act against Hezbollah.”
A further manifestation of this escalation in the threat level has been Iran and its allies’ use of drone technology. Drones are relatively cheap, as well as being difficult to detect, with the ability to penetrate secure zones. There is also a degree of deniability. Already in 2021, nine drone attacks and 21 rocket attacks have targeted US facilities across Iraq. Cyberwarfare for Iran is an even cheaper method of wreaking havoc among its enemies.
Even Tehran has become disconcerted at the ease with which its Iraqi Hashd militants can rain down missiles and GPS-guided “suicide drones” on US targets, with consequences that could easily escalate. In this respect Iran has created monsters that it can’t always control. Qassim Soleimani micromanaged these factions with an iron fist. His successor as head of the Quds Force, Esmail Qaani — who can’t even speak Arabic —is habitually ignored on his periodic trips to Baghdad by headstrong militants who want to attack the Americans on their own terms. This makes for a much more dangerous geopolitical environment in which a major conflagration could erupt, even if Iran and Israel don’t desire it.
Iran has likewise been progressively boosting its capacities to menace shipping in the Gulf, the Straits of Hormuz, Bab El-Mandeb and even the eastern Mediterranean — routes crucial for energy security and the maintenance of the global economy. A shadow war has been playing out that most of us are scarcely aware of, as Israel and Iran attack each other’s shipping. The only remarkable thing about the latest attack (against the Mercer Street, a ship managed by an Israeli-owned company, hit by an Iran-made drone loaded with a military-grade explosive) was that two people were killed.
There have been over 150 such attacks on ships over the past three years, with Iran using drones, mines, bombs attached to ships’ hulls, rockets and explosives-laden boats. In most cases these attacks haven’t been acknowledged by the concerned parties. One of Iran’s largest warships recently sank in mysterious circumstances. This runs parallel to dozens of attacks against Iran’s military, nuclear and civilian infrastructure, presumably by Israel. It’s a miracle the sides haven’t already plunged the region into wholesale war.
Matters are made infinitely worse by the fact that Israel and Iran are both now governed by figures whose names have long been synonymous with murderously fanatical extremism. Even among Israel’s extreme-extreme-right leadership, Naftali Bennett was one of few figures who openly advocated evicting all Palestinians and annexing the West Bank, while boasting about killing Arabs. To make matters worse, an embittered Netanyahu has been arguing that Bennett isn’t man enough to do what it takes against Iran. In response, a rattled Bennett last week delivered a hammy TV performance, glaring menacingly at the camera and growling: “We know how to convey the message to Iran in our own way.”
Iran meanwhile has sworn in a mass murderer as president. A trial in Sweden will be a continuing reminder of this, with one of Ebrahim Raisi’s former cronies being prosecuted for the mass murder of dissidents in 1988 — a slaughter that Raisi boasted about personally overseeing. He isn’t just an extremist hardliner, he’s the guy who spent his career executing the bloody tasks that other extremist hardliners were too squeamish to do themselves. Just how worried do we need to be about the world’s security prospects?
And why did the EU send top diplomat Enrique Mora to this butcher’s inauguration? So much for Europe’s tough stances on democracy and human rights. Considering the ominous developments under eight years of a “moderate” president, we should be desperately worried about what Iran will be capable of now that all hardliner power centers are in alignment.
In a lot of Western reporting and diplomatic debate about Iranian aggression there’s a conspicuous note of “it could have been worse.” I lose count of the number of officials who brush off my questions with such platitudes: The latest attacks against ships in the Gulf could have been worse; the latest Hezbollah-Israel tit-for-tat could have been worse; strikes against US bases in Iraq could have been worse; Houthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia could have been worse …
Everywhere we see the cowardly diplomacy of futile statements, papering over the cracks, appeasing pariah regimes, while ignoring ominous long-term trends, while Iran continues ratcheting up its threatening regional posture.
While we can be thankful that none of these recent incidents escalated into something infinitely worse. That these are daily events which the media often scarcely bothers to report renders it almost an inevitability that we will awaken one morning to find that everything has erupted in flames.