Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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December 2, 2002

Tehran Maneuvers for a Wider War With Israel to Ensure That the US-led War on Iraq Does Not Leave Iran Isolated and Surrounded

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, GIS Senior Editor. With the US attack on Iraq seemingly inevitable, there is overwhelming evidence that the governments of Iran and Syria have embarked on an plan to create a strategic posture in the Middle East which would compel Israel to attack Syria and Lebanon irrespective of the outcome of the US-led war with Iraq.

Consequently, even if Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein failed to provoke an Arab-Israeli war as a preemption to the US-led onslaught, and even if the US succeeded in coercing Israel into passivity during the war with Iraq, it would ultimately be impossible for Israel not to attack Syria and Lebanon.

Any such attack would get Iran directly involved in the war, thus starting a strategy dynamic which, both Tehran and Damascus are convinced, would ultimately reverse the US gains in and against Iraq without their having to confront the US directly.

Presently, both Tehran and Damascus seem clearly concerned over the potential ramifications of a successful US attack on Iraq and the establishment of a pro-US Government in Baghdad. For both Iran and Syria, a pro-US Iraq would complete their respective encirclement by pro-US countries, a posture which would inevitably lead to the stifling of their administrations. And neither Damascus nor Tehran is ready to commit suicide in order to facilitate Washington’s triumph over Saddam Hussein.

At the same time, both Tehran and Damascus seem cognizant that once the US commited to removing Saddam Hussein, the US would swiftly occupy the bulk of Iraq and establish a friendly Government even if Saddam survived in hiding and some terrorism and guerilla warfare continued. Significantly, both countries are clearly convinced that the passing of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1441 has had, and will have, no impact on the US regional designs. If anything, Syrian and Iranian officials intimate, the UNSC merely provided “a figleaf of legitimacy to the preordained American aggression”.

Hence, as the US pressure on the UNSC, of which Syria is a member, increased, Syria and Iran accelerated their preparations for the destabilizing provocation. At the core of the Iranian-Syrian grand design is the deployment in southern Lebanon of a large number of long-range missiles and rockets, some of which are capable of reaching the northern Negev desert in Israel. Ostensibly in the hands of the HizbAllah, the long range missiles are actually controlled by Iranian Pasdaran [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps: IRGC] crews. There is every indication that both Tehran and Damascus are convinced that Jerusalem would not long be able to tolerate such a threat. To speed up the Israeli reaction, Syria launched, and directly oversees, provocations regarding Israel’s vital water resources, both diversion of spring water and contaminating with sewage of other spring water. With the aggregate impact of these provocations affecting well over 15 percent of the country’s drinking water supplies, Israel will eventually have to act — at the very least in southern Lebanon — thus instigating the regional war to which Damascus and Tehran aspire.

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In the Autumn of 2002, Tehran embarked on a dangerous gambit. From all the information received, Iran’s ruling mullahs consider the outcome of the US-led war with Iraq a matter of life and death for their Administration. If the US succeeds to establish a pro-Western stable government in Baghdad, it would effectively complete the encirclement of Iran by hostile forces and countries. This would amount to the beginning of the stifling and strangulation of the clerical Administration, an untenable situation for Iran’s mullahs. As well, Tehran knows that Iran is very high on Washington’s list of terrorism-sponsoring states, and that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been openly urging a sympathetic US Pres. George W. Bush to rapidly expand the war on terrorism from Iraq to include Iran. Hence, Tehran does not want to needlessly aggravate the situation in and around Iran.

Iran’s interests in the current crisis are complex. In principle, the toppling of Saddam Hussein is in Tehran’s interest. However, Tehran would rather see the ensuing dismemberment of Iraq in order to consolidate, capitalizing on its influence over Syria’s Allawites and Lebanon’s HizbAllah,  a Shi’ite “belt” all the way to the Mediterranean. Further more, the emergence of a post-Saddam unified Iraq, dominated by the US, is considered a mortal threat by Tehran. Therefore, starting in the [Northern Hemisphere] Summer of 2002, Iran revived the Badr Corps comprised of a few thousand Iraqi Shi’ites, all of them followers of Imam Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

Nominally Iraqi, the Badr Corps is under the command of Pasdaran officers. To expedite preparations, a special training base was established for the Badr Corps in Qasr as-Shirrin, in western Iran, under the command of Col. Hosni Merza Khalil of Pasdaran Intelligence. In mid-August 2002, al-Hakim met his commanders to discuss the forthcoming war, and declared that “the Badr forces will be assigned an important combat rôle during the expected US military strike against Iraq” in order to safeguard the interests of the Iraqi Shi’ites. Special attention was paid to the ongoing activities of “the jihadist formations” which, according to their chief, Hassan Abdallah, already have around 30 secret operational centers in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. In September 2002, Imam Baqr al-Hakim issued a fatwa ruling that “any cooperation with the United States is religiously prohibited”.

However, it is impossible to ignore the mounting US threat to Iran [and Syria] from an expanded US regional presence to the profound long-term ramification of the imminent attack on Iraq. Therefore, Tehran’s clerical leaders embarked on a sophisticated game aimed to further its inherently anti-US interests without risking direct confrontation with Washington. It is an audacious and dangerous gambit because it is based on deception vis-à-vis the US, particularly, the pretense of tensions with Damascus — Tehran’s closest ally — as well as the sponsorship of deniable anti-Israeli terrorism.

The essence of the Iranian “game-plan” is the pretense of being moderately anti-Iraq vis-à-vis the US in the Persian Gulf area while preparing, in concert with Syria, the HizbAllah and Palestinian terrorists, for the launching of a major war against Israel from southern Lebanon.

The Iranian goal is to divert US attention away from Iran. Teheran’s ultimate strategic objective is not to prevent the US assault on Iraq; not that Tehran would not prefer such a development. However, being pragmatic and prudent, Tehran has adopted a realist and practical objective: to disrupt the US anti-terrorism initiative and, most important, ruin the US ability to consolidate a pro-US regional order in the Middle East, all without a direct confrontation between the US and Iran. The Iranian clerical leadership  is, according to all sources, convinced that any major flare-up of the Arab-Israeli fighting, particularly in and around Lebanon and Syria, would serve its ultimate objectives to perfection while keeping the war away from Iran.

Significantly, although the actual fighting would involve a host of “allies” and “partners”, the ultimate command and control authority would remain solely in Tehran’s hands. Iran accepts no “partners” in the ultimate decision to flare-up the region, attack Israel, and consequently disrupt and ruin what the Iranian clerics perceive to be Washington’s grand design.

At the same time, Tehran knows it must operate through local venues if only because Iran does not have a common border with Israel, and is hundreds of miles away. In Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Asad’s Damascus, Tehran has found an eager and ready partner. Bashar al-Asad himself is the key to the Syrian commitment to the Iranian grand design. Bashar has long been committed to the empowerment of the HizbAllah over Lebanon, and is known to consider the eruption of violence along the Lebanon-Israel border a key to Syria’s strategic posture.

In early Autumn 2002, Syria began changes at the top of its security apparatus in order to expedite cooperation with Iran. Most crucial is the rise of Assaf Shawqat — Bashar’s brother-in-law and closest confidant — to the post of deputy chief of military intelligence. This makes Shawqat the strongest man in Syrian intelligence because his ostensible chief — Hassan Hallil — is an important figure in Damascus but significantly weaker than the all-mighty Ali Duba, Hafez al-Asad’s fierce loyalist.

Assaf Shawqat has long argued that irrespective of the military outcome — that is, a defeat — a war with Israel would serve the long-term interest of Bashar al-Asad because it would provide for the cementing of a new Jamaah (inner clique of confidantes), much like the rôle of the 1967 Six Day War in the consolidation of Hafez al-Asad’s Jamaah and regime. Another manifestation of the changes in Damascus is the October 9, 2002, replacement of the ubiquitous Maj.-Gen. Ghazi Kanan by Brig.-Gen. Rustum Ghazali — a Shawqat loyalist and a staunch supporter of the HizbAllah — as the Chief of the Security and Intelligence Agency of the Syrian Armed Forces in Lebanon.

Iran’s national policy and strategic view on the connection between the US threat to Iraq and the liberation of Palestine were publicly elucidated in mid-October 2002. Two Friday Sermons delivered on October 11, 2002, provided authoritative statement. In the first Sermon, Speaker of the Majlis Mehdi Karrubi stressed that only the destruction of Israel would bring an end to the Palestinian crisis.

The US threat to Iraq is but one minor aspect of the US threat to Islam. “The United States is trying to impose its will in the Near East by making al-Quds the capital of the Israeli regime. Beyt-ol-Moqaddas [the Temple in Jerusalem; Temple Mount] is the Muslims’ first Quibla [the direction in which one prays],” Karrubi stated, “and the revolutionary Muslim generation will not remain silent in the face of this problem.”

In the second Sermon, IRGC Commander Yahia Rahim Safavi called for the creation of a pan-Muslim army to reverse the American gains and destroy Israel. “If only one-tenth of the billion Muslims who make up the Islamic world join this army, the Zionist state might be overthrown,” he said. “The only way to topple the Zionist regime is to create an Islamic army with the help of all of the world’s Muslims.”

The defeat of the US designs on Iraq would be the first step toward the destruction of Israel. “The American goal in attacking Iraq is not to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein, but to safeguard the Zionist state,” Safavi stated. “If just one-tenth of the world’s Muslims took part in this army of 100-million mujahedin, then every Muslim would take part in the jihad to liberate Palestine.”

The key Syrian-Iranian strategic coordination was completed on October 18, 2002, during the visit to Damascus by Iran’s Minister of Intelligence Ali Yunesi. The visit took place immediately after the completion of the first phase of the Iranian build-up of strategic capabilities in Lebanon (see below) and on the eve of a deception and disinformation campaign suggesting tensions between Damascus and Tehran regarding the future of Iraq. According to senior Lebanese officials, Yunesi’s visit “was decisive in achieving ‘full’ Syrian-Iranian understanding over the Iraqi issue.”

Yunesi met at length with Bashar al-Asad as well as other key Syrian senior officials and the senior leaders of the HizbAllah. In their meeting, Bashar al-Asad stressed that the conditions in the region were “dangerous” and that the “strategic cooperation” between Iran and Syria would be “very beneficial and important at this sensitive point in time”. Reporting to Tehran, Yunesi summed up his meeting with Asad as a “very good meeting” leading to joint undertakings. Yunesi reported that “the most important points raised concerned the question of a possible American attack on Iraq and current developments in Palestine. ... Fortunately, on all issues, there was like-mindedness. Both countries are anxious about America’s aims and intentions in the region and both countries are anxious about the fate of Palestine, and they will use all their efforts to this end.”

Regarding the impending US attack on Iraq, Yunesi reported, he and Bashar “decided that the two countries should do their utmost to prevent this attack”.

Senior Lebanese officials who were briefed by their Syrian counterparts provided additional details about Yunesi’s other meetings in Damascus. On the eve of Yunesi’s visit, Damascus “had expressed a kind of concern about statements that emerged from Tehran from time to time about Iraq”, the officials noted. In Damascus, they added, Yunesi succeeded “to dispel this concern in a decisive way”. He conveyed to the Damascus leadership Tehran’s conviction of  “the danger of the American war on Iraq and, subsequently, the American presence in that country”, and convinced Damascus on the imperative to formulate a common anti-US strategy.

Yunesi briefed the Syrians on Iranian “Supreme Leader” Khamenei’s recent guidance to the Iranian National Security Council which led to a formal resolution that “it is ‘not allowed’ to offer any assistance to the American war against Iraq and that the Shi’ite and Kurdish opposition groups on which Iran and Syria have any amount of influence are ‘not allowed’ to be part of the American plan”. Tehran already resolved, Yunesi briefed, that “the pro-Iran Iraqi Shi’ite opposition will not be part of the American military strike”.

The Lebanese officials concluded that “Yunesi’s visit provided an opportunity for the two sides to reach an understanding over strategy and ways of dealing with [regional] developments”, and that “Syria and Iran ‘might take major joint steps’ to prevent, or at least delay, the American strike [on Iraq]”.

Yunesi and Bashar agreed that their primary instrument for forestalling and defeating the US designs against Iraq and the Middle East as a whole was what they called “the development of relations among the Syria-Iran-HizbAllah triangle” in the current “sensitive” circumstances. The senior Lebanese officials stressed that the agreement between the members of what the Syrians call “the strategic triangle” was so close that “it is now difficult, indeed impossible, to separate the three parties or disengage the three tracks”.

Yunesi and Bashar resolved to use the “HizbAllah’s regional dimension” as the primary instrument for disrupting the region’s stability. Indeed, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and other HizbAllah leaders who were summoned to Damascus for meetings with Yunesi, Bashar and other senior officials were told that the HizbAllah must now stress its “regional rôle” at the expense of its current “Lebanese rôle and dimension”. The HizbAllah would be instructed “at the right time” when to begin implementing “the HizbAllah’s regional rôle in cooperation with Syria and Iran”.

Given their close relationship and frequent meetings, neither Bashar al-Asad nor Sheikh Nasrallah needed any encouragement from Tehran. Starting in late October 2002, Bashar assumed direct control over the HizbAllah’s build-up and activities along the Israeli-Lebanese border. He began to directly call both Lebanon’s Pres. Emile Lahud and the HizbAllah’s Sheikh Nasrallah, giving them specific and precise instructions. Asad continued to do this even when, acting on specific intelligence, US Undersecretary of State William Burns visited Damascus to deliver warning from Washington.

Official Damascus shrugged the US warnings and intensified the HizbAllah’s teasing of Israel and prodding of its defenses in order to gauge Israel’s reaction to a major escalation once the US attacked Iraq. Meanwhile, Bashar started summoning Nasrallah to Damascus at a growing frequency to consult on the next activities, as well as give specific instructions on operations ranging from firing anti-aircraft fire at passing Israeli combat aircraft to the diversion and contamination of Israel’s drinking water.

Although shrugged-off, Burns’ warnings nevertheless prompted Syria to take precautionary steps. In early November 2002, Damascus launched a disinformation campaign aimed to portray a conflict between Syria and Iran over the forthcoming Iraq crisis. The “message” was “leaked” to the Arab world’s élites through a November 7, 2002, article in al-Hayah by Ibrahim Hamidi, the leading unofficial spokesman of Syria in the Arab world. Hamidi argued that despite the enduring “strategic” relations between Syria and Iran, the gap between them over reaction to the US threat to Iraq was “widening”. There are points of agreement between Damascus and Tehran, Hamidi explained.  “Opposition to the military strike, concern about the emergence of a pro-Washington regime in Iraq close to their borders, opposition to a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, satisfaction with the ‘containment’ of President Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the growing feelings about the US post-Baghdad targeting,” he quoted Syrian officials as explaining. The differences were on the basis of the divergent economic interests in Iraq and the fear of the impact of a pro-US Iraq on Israel’s strategic posture.

Damascus, Hamidi wrote, was apprehensive about Tehran’s professed policy of “positive neutrality” and assertion that Tehran “will not shed tears” over Saddam. Damascus was also reacting to intelligence reports about US-Iranian negotiations in Europe on modalities for tacit cooperation against Iraq. Consequently, Yunesi came to Damascus “to dispel this concern and discuss the common points,” Hamidi wrote. “What this means is that Iran will not be a soldier in the US Army and we will not stand with Saddam Hussein,” Hamidi quoted Yunesi telling Bashar.

Yunesi added that “the public positions of Syria and Iran do not mean defending and standing with Saddam but opposing the policy of power and arrogance that the United States is pursuing against the countries of the region and which will lead to a real disaster.” Nevertheless, an Arab diplomatic source explained, “the Syrians have been left out of this [US-Iranian contacts] and feel vulnerable”. Therefore, not to be left out, Syria would have to also moderate its opposition to US strike. The Syrian vote in support of UNSC 1441 should be seen in this context: part of the Syrian purported placating of the US in order not to be left behind Iran’s maneuvers.

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Reality is completely different. While these political maneuvers were taking place, Iran and Syria completed a major military build-up in southern and eastern Lebanon. Damascus and Tehran closely cooperated in the consolidation of both direct and deniable strike capabilities against Israel in order to provoke a major Israeli attack on Syria, thus instigating a regional war irrespective of Baghdad’s position.

The Iranian infrastructure includes three defense lines established earlier in the Summer of 2002. Back in June-July 2002, Bashar ordered the acceleration of the terrorist build-up in southern Lebanon in accordance with the resolutions of the Tehran conference, including Imad Mughniyah’s nomination as the local supreme commander. By mid-July 2002, Mughniyah’s command included some 12,000 trained Shi’ite fighters and an arsenal of heavy weapons, including over 10,000 missiles and rockets, as well as some 10,000 Palestinian fighters and between 120 and 150 al-Qaida veterans who arrived via Pakistan and Iran.

Mughniyah’s forces were deployed in a series of fortifications covering a 10 to 15 mile wide sector north of the Israeli-Lebanese border, with a central headquarters built in an underground bunker complex under a hill in an eastern neighborhood of Sidon overlooking the Mediterranean. The new command enjoyed lavish logistical, intelligence and financial support from Iran and Syria, including an expanded and dedicated training infrastructure in Lebanon, Syria and Iran. Indeed, some US officials considered this build-up a more urgent a threat to the US than Saddam’s.

Subsequently, the HizbAllah has been supplied with new types of missiles with longer range and bigger warheads. First to arrive were several hundreds of long-range Iranian-manufactured 240mm Fajr-3 with range of 40km/25 miles and 333mm Fajr-5 rockets with range of 72km/45miles. Both missiles have a standard 220lb/100kg warhead. These were supplemented later in the fall by the delivery of more than 300 220mm rockets with range of 72-80km/45-50miles (slightly longer than the Fajr-5s which the HizbAllah already had received from Iran) but fitted with a smaller warhead. This was primarily a politically important development because these rockets are produced by the Syrian Military Industries for the sole use of the Syrian Armed Forces. Hence, the delivery of these rockets amounted to Syria’s direct involvement in any future use by the HizbAllah, a “first” of great political significance.

In mid-November 2002, Damascus promised to also supply HizbAllah with new long-range 330mm rockets which the Syrian Military Industries have yet to put into production. Strategically, most important was the delivery in September/October 2002 of numerous Zalzal-2 missiles to the Pasdaran contingent in southern Lebanon. Although not accurate, the 610mm Zalzal-2 has a range of 210km/130miles with a standard 1323lb/600kg warhead — thus covering all of central Israel to the northern Gaza Strip. The Zalzal-2 is thus capable of easily reaching the greater Tel Aviv area. With a smaller warhead, the Zalzal-2’s range can be extended to at least 320km/200miles, which means covering the Dimona-area facilities. The Zalzal-2 missiles are hidden in underground storage bases in Tyre and Sidon areas under Pasdaran control.

In late October 2002, immediately after their meeting with, and briefing by, Yunesi, HizbAllah leaders and Iranian senior officials became far more audacious in their threats to Israel, alluding to the new long-range weaponry. On October 20, 2002, Sheikh Mohammed Yazbek, the Lebanon representative of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khameini, said: “All sensitive areas of the Zionist entity are within the range of our fire.” Appearing on the HizbAllah’s al-Manar TV two days later, Nasrallah talked about the organization’s new reach. “In 1996 ... with Katyushas alone, the resistance was able to displace two million people and [the Israeli government] had to look for places in central Israel to settle them,” he explained. “[Since] the HizbAllah’s missiles can now reach all population centers in Israel, then where can they [Israeli people] flee?”

By now, the HizbAllah’s rhetoric emphasized the organization’s growing commitment to solidarity with the Palestinians, the sustenance of the intifada, and the ensuring of total victory over Israel; that is, the destruction of Israel. HizbAllah senior commanders in south Lebanon openly talked about a massive attack on Israel in conjunction with a US attack on Iraq as an expression of “solidarity with the Iraqi people”. Toward this end, a force of well over 1,000 highly-trained HizbAllah élite was deployed on the border with Israel, ready to strike on a moment notice.

HizbAllah also started the deployment of rockets from storage sites in the Beqa’a to forward positions near the Israeli border. As well, a large number of Syrian forces mixed with these HizbAllah formations — ensuring that any Israeli retaliation would inevitably injure Syrians. In late November 2002, Israeli senior defense officials noted that HizbAllah was “one decision away from striking out”, pushing the whole region into war involving at the very least Syria, Iran and Iraq.

The concurrent high-profile involvement of Iranian Intelligence and the HizbAllah in Palestinian terrorism is of grand strategic importance, exceeding by far the impact of the potential carnage on the Israeli public and government. The primary objective of the joint support for Palestinian terrorists is to prove to Baghdad that Tehran has its own reach into the heart of Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas, and that they do so with Arafat’s blessing and active support.

Indeed, all the major terrorist strikes since mid-November 2002 — from the Hebron ambush, through the bus bombing in Jerusalem, to the Israeli advance neutralization of a huge HizbAllah-type bomb in Nablus — had the fingerprints of Iran and the HizbAllah on them. Although claimed by a myriad of Palestinian organizations, these operations were actually conducted by a myriad of ad hoc teams comprised of Iran-sponsored Palestinian Islamists and Syria-sponsored Palestinian radicals supervised and controlled on-site by HizbAllah operatives long operating inside the territories. (Incidentally, the cache of documents and weaponry captured by Israel in Muhammad Dahlan’s old compound in Gaza provided confirmation of the prevalence of the Iranian and HizbAllah presence in the ranks of the PA.) Thus, when Sheikh Nasrallah bragged on November 21, 2002, about the spread of “the martyrdom culture” worldwide and the HizbAllah’s meaningful solidarity with the Palestinians, he was referring to the organization’s recent contribution to the spate of terrorism at the heart of Israel.

Although dominated from Tehran, the HizbAllah’s build-up is progressing in intimate cooperation with the highest authorities in Damascus. Bashar considers himself the patron and friend of Nasrallah and the HizbAllah, and is committed to empowering Nasrallah over Lebanon. Given these relations, Bashar is convinced he is in position to unilaterally ignite a regional war that will draw Iran into active participation if only because of the inevitable destruction by Israel of the Iranian expeditionary presence in Lebanon and Tehran’s determination to prevent the destruction of the HizbAllah. However, the mullahs can neither afford handing over such a strategic victory to Damascus nor can Tehran lose the dominance over the strategic dynamics in the region. Hence, Tehran is adamant on retaining the strategic initiative. Therefore, Iran is seeking to avoid unnecessary clashes with the US in order to reduce the threat of the US taking on Iran before Tehran could unleash the strategic surprise: a surge from Lebanon toward Jerusalem.

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In late November 2002, Tehran’s strategic calculations were firmed up. Iran defined a desirable scenario for the forthcoming crisis and war. Iranian sources indicate that the clerics in Tehran would welcome a situation in which the US severely hurt Saddam but failed to consolidate victory over Iraq. The key measure for success is the US ability to establish a viable and legitimate post-Saddam Government in Baghdad. In this context, Tehran is encouraged by Afghan Pres. Hamid Karzai’s enduring difficulty in establishing effective control over Afghanistan in the wake of the collapse of the Taliban. Under such circumstances, the mullahs are convinced, any anti-Israel regional flare-up would force the US out of the region with great humiliation. The Iranian and HizbAllah strategic priorities, including the specter of an Israeli war against Syria and Lebanon, aim to deliver such an outcome. Subsequently, a weak Iraq, even if ostensibly unified, would serve as a Shi’ite corridor to the Mediterranean. Iran would then emerge as the strategic winner of the regional war and upheaval.

The other alternative — namely, a clear US victory over Iraq and the establishment of a pro-US Government in Baghdad — is deemed a profound threat to Iran’s vital interests. In late November 2002, Pasdaran Commander Brig.-Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi explained that by invading Iraq, the US sought to undermine Iran’s security. “America is intending to endanger Iran’s security by occupying Iraq and creating crisis and tensions in Tehran’s relations with other countries of the world,” he told Iranian officers.

The entire Iranian defense establishment “must play a leading rôle in establishing enduring security in the country by boosting its power and defense readiness so that it could resist threats of America and the Zionist Israeli regime”, he added. Similarly, Deputy Interior Minister for Security and Disciplinary Affairs Ali-Asghar Ahmadi noted that “Iran is the only deterrent to the US in the Middle East” and it was therefore only logical “the US also considers Iran as the main obstacle to advancing its policy against the Palestinian intifada.” Iran’s main challenge would come only in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, Ahmadi explained, and Tehran “should wait and see how the Americans treat Iran after the invasion of Iraq”.

In the meantime, Tehran resolved, Iran would refrain from both provocations along the border with Iraq and semblance of assistance to the US. “The border with Iraq will remain secure and calm even if the ruling regime in Baghdad collapses as a result of the anticipated US campaign,” Iranian Defense Minister Adm. Ali Shamkhani told a meeting of senior officers. Senior Pasdaran commanders instructed commanders of the Badr Corps they “must not establish any cooperation with the American forces if a US attack is launched against Iraq”.

Tehran’s priorities and preferences were best defined by Imam Baqir al-Hakim. He told commanders of the Badr Corps that “war on Iraq is unavoidable” because “the internal situation in Iraq and the position of the Iraqi regime are all indications of the war”. Rather than help the US in taking on Saddam’s Government, Imam Baqir al-Hakim stated: “The Iraqi opposition was ready to play a major rôle to fill up the political vacuum that would occur when the Iraqi regime is overthrown.”

Meanwhile, preparations in Lebanon for the forthcoming crisis and war accelerate. In late November, Iranian emissaries briefed the HizbAllah leadership that although “the American war against Iraq is inevitable and its justification is ready”, Tehran “expects the war to start between 20 and 30 January [2003]”. Tehran has learned from its West European allies, the HizbAllah leadership was briefed, that “the United States will prevent Israel from opening a front against HizbAllah in south Lebanon before or during the military attack against Iraq. The United States believes that Israel should not take advantage of its war against Iraq to attack HizbAllah and Lebanon’s vital installations”. However, the Iranians have no faith in these assurances, and Tehran’s working assumption is that Israel “[will] defy the American demand”.

HizbAllah’s take on the Iranian instructions was expressed in a November 27, 2002, lecture by Sheikh Nasrallah at the university breakfast in Burj al-Barajinah. Nasrallah stressed the fatefulness of the time, and the profound implications of any undertaking by the HizbAllah. “We want to defend our country. Any step forward or backward will be of a historic nature at this stage, and any effort will have fateful results,” he said. Nasrallah told his audience that “what we are warning of is the possibility of the Israeli enemy attacking Lebanon and Syria concurrently with the US military attack against Iraq. This possibility is getting bigger and bigger, and, therefore, we must be cautious.”

HizbAllah has no intention of remaining passive under such circumstances, and its ongoing build-up is aimed to meet this challenge. “The enemy will not know the capabilities, numbers, plans, or ideas of the resistance. It will not know how far the resistance advanced and how prepared it is. These things will remain secrets.” Nasrallah added that the enemy “does not know any small detail about these things because it failed to penetrate any HizbAllah cadre”. Nasrallah stressed that the ultimate objectives of the HizbAllah in confronting Israel were of historic nature. “In the face of the new threats, we are not talking about standing fast or about obstructing the objectives of the Israeli aggression. We are talking about something much bigger and looking forward to achieving a victory greater than the victory that was scored on 24 May 2000 [=effecting the pullout of the Israeli forces from south Lebanon]. The victory we are looking forward to will have bigger and more serious strategic consequences for the existence of this entity [=Israel] and for the entire Zionist project in the region,” Nasrallah declared.

The next day, Tehran joined the public threats to Israel, calling for a new front to be opened against Israel so that “Zionists” no longer feel safe anywhere in the world. “After the lightning success of the intifada against the Zionists, more and more Muslim revolutionaries have reached the conclusion that we should open a front outside occupied Palestine that targets the security of the Zionists and their protectors,” Kayhan’s editor Hossein Shariatmadari wrote in a front page editorial in Tehran. “They should all be killed and expelled from the areas where they have expelled you.” In the editorial, Shariatmadari noted that the breaking news of the terrorist attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya came after he had written his piece, and that these attacks were in agreement with his call to arms.

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In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon finds himself torn between the urgent imperative to remove the growing threat to the heart of Israel and the pressure from the Bush White House for Israel not to do anything which might distract attention away from the US confrontation with Iraq. Sharon is highly conscious that any error of judgement on his part might prove perilous to Israel’s very existence.

Israel’s current predicament and the urgent imperative to confront the looming threats were best elucidated by US Pres. John Kennedy in his October 22, 1962, speech explaining the US approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Neither the United States of America nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small. We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace.”

That on October 8, 2002, current US Pres. George W. Bush used passages from the same Kennedy speech in order to justify the US right to preemptively and unilaterally attack on Iraq does not help Jerusalem’s case and position be better understood in Washington. In the meantime, Jerusalem and Washington passively wait for Tehran, Damascus and HizbAllah to take first step.