Belmont Club

Merger She Wrote

David Ignatius argues that Iran is writhing under the sanctions of the Obama administration by waging proxy war in Lebanon and Iraq. “While American eyes were focused on the midterm elections, a bitter conflict has continued between the US and Iran for influence in the Middle East.”

The Obama administration hopes that this jousting with Iran is a prelude to serious talks on limits to Tehran’s nuclear program. In the administration’s view, the Iranians have been squeezed by UN sanctions – and are fighting back in Iraq and Lebanon partly to show they still have leverage.

However it may be the Obama administration that is actually on the defensive. Lebanon Now quotes a report in Al-Akhbar, a newspaper close to Hezbollah, outlining plans to take over Lebanon in the event Hezbollah members are indicted by the international tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri.  This includes offensives into Sunni and  Christian areas and the siege of Saad Hariri’s stronghold in Beirut. Some analysts have pooh-poohed the reports as mere Hezbollah posturing. Ignatius suggests that far from being worried at the saber-rattling, Washington believes that so much the better. The American lack of pushback was described to him as part of a clever “rope-a-dope” strategy by the administration to hoist Teheran by its own petard.

The US resistance to Tehran has been a kind of rope-a-dope strategy, with US allies absorbing Iranian blows while Washington dickers for compromise – and, metaphorically, waits for Iran to punch itself out. The US hope, in the words of former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, is that “Iranian influence is self-limiting. The harder they push, the more resistance they get.”

According to this explanation, Obama is waiting for Ahmedinajad to stick his head into a noose before tightening it. But this confident assessment is belied by Lee Smith, who claims that Washington is all but resigned to a new war between Hezbollah and Israel, something that implies the eventual ability of Teheran’s proxy Hezbollah to launch hostilities against Lebanon’s southern neighbor, Israel. In Smith’s view “most U.S. policymakers and bureaucrats do not believe that the United States has an interest in pushing back against an Iranian asset in the Eastern Mediterranean”. It sounds less like “rope-a-dope” than turning a blind eye of an Iran-Lebanon merger, one that involves at least one war — with Israel.

In Washington the assumption is that it’s only a matter of time before Israel and Hezbollah will be at war again. But what’s worse is that, according to policymakers and analysts I’ve spoken to, the United States is sharply opposed to Israel finishing the work it failed to get done in its two previous Lebanon wars (1982-2000; 2006). This isn’t just because the Obama Administration wants to keep things cool in the region to allow for relatively peaceful U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and to keep terrorists off the streets of U.S. cities. The more disturbing reason is that Israel is no longer trusted to do the job right.

Which does not necessarily mean Obama is going to finish what Israel cannot, simply an observation that Israel can’t do it “right”. Ignatius himself reports fears inside Iraq that Iranian proxies are about attempt what Hezbollah has been accused of planning in Lebanon.  There is talk that Iran will soon start the fires burning. In view of these reports, the smug narrative that Iran is simply squirming helplessly under the resolute system of sanctions by of the Obama administration is less than compelling.  Maybe things are as they seem. Washington isn’t thrusting but on the contrary it is Iran that is on the offense and DC is on the retreat, like a squid pushing out clouds to make a virtue out of necessity if not excuses for an actual vice.

Some Iraqis fear that Tehran is planning a campaign of reprisals. A source last week sent me a purported Iraqi intelligence report claiming that “Iranian intelligence officers [plan] a two-stage operation involving assassinating [former] members of the Baath Party and former and current officers in the army and intelligence agency.”

It is not easy to see the troubles in Iraq as the death-throes of a desperate Iran. Big Government notes that Iran has been waging war inside Iraq for a long time, going back to 2006 — a claim voluminously substantiated by the documents released by Wikileaks. If this is the actual case then the Obama administration may soon be facing a challenge in the Middle East born of its accumulated attempts to “engage” Teheran rather than block it. Reality will either substantiate the “rope-a-dope” narrative or write one of its own.


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