Last week Iran dispatched high-level envoy Saeed Jalili for a particularly controversial public relations tour in the most explosive corner of the region. After ruffling feathers during a Beirut stopover, Jalili traveled to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, where he described the ties between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah as an “Axis of Resistance.”
Jalili is an iconic figure, whose position as the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council also affords him the role of chief negotiator for Iran’s contentious nuclear program. Amidst a deadlock in negotiations and a rehashing of threatening rhetoric, Jalili’s visit was meant to remind the Israelis that Iran’s proxies on their northern doorstep remain ready and willing to plunge the region into chaos in response to a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. It appears, however, that Iran’s patrons in the eastern Mediterranean may not be as keen to the notion of going to war for the ayatollahs as they would like — and the Israelis know it.
The threat of a simultaneous war with Hezbollah, Syria, and Gaza militants remains the primary factor itching at the back of the neck of the Israeli security establishment when weighing a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Dubbed by the Israel Defense Forces “the long arm of Iran," Hezbollah is said to possess more than 70,000 missiles that can strike as far south as Israel’s nuclear reactor near Dimona. Combining this arsenal with the more than 10,000 rockets in the Gaza Strip and Assad’s chemical weapons constitutes the most formidable threat to Israel’s homefront since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
And yet, Israeli leaders seem content to shrug off this threat. On two recent occasions, Defense Minister Ehud Barak boldly estimated that Israel would sustain 300 to 500 casualties in a conflict with Iran and its proxies. Such an estimate suggests that Barak himself does not believe that Israeli cities will bear the full brunt of Iran’s “long arm” as a consequence to a strike. Days later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also dismissed the threat of regional conflict by stating that threats to the homefront are "dwarfed" by a nuclear Iran.
Judging from their own statements, Hezbollah leaders also aren’t convinced that they want to enter into a conflict with Israel at Iran’s behest. In February 2012, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said, "I tell you that the Iranian leadership will not ask Hezbollah to do anything. On that day, we will sit, think and decide what we will do."
Nasrallah’s hesitation is understandable. Entering into broad conflict with Israel would result in even greater destruction to Lebanon than in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. This time, Hezbollah would be unable to replenish its stockpiles or rebuild destroyed villages so easily. Nasrallah’s guarantor in Damascus is on his last legs, while his primary bankrollers in Tehran have already cut funding to the group as a result of sanctions and diversion of resources to Syria. Needless to say, entering into a conflict with Israel would likely benefit Nasrallah’s sectarian rivals by neutralizing his private militia in an irreparable manner — stripping him of the only thing guaranteeing his political hegemony in Lebanon.
Next door in Syria, Assad faces similar concerns. A conflict with Israel could compromise his military advantage over an increasingly powerful rebel army, including the chemical weapons stockpiles so necessary in securing the protection of Alawite enclaves as the civil war in Syria intensifies.
Meanwhile, Iran’s relationship with militant groups in the Gaza Strip has witnessed a dramatic shift in the midst of the Arab Spring. As Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, put it, “If Israel attacks us, we will respond. If they don’t, we will not get involved in any regional conflict.”
Returning to its Sunni loyalties, Hamas seems to be cozying up to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and away from Iran. Furthermore, the trauma from Israel's offensive in Gaza — Operation Cast Lead — in 2009, continues to keep Hamas rockets off the launching pad, in addition to a 300-strong guerrilla force employed by Hamas whose sole mission is to impede rocket attacks by smaller splinter groups against Israel.
Despite the weakened state of Iran’s proxies, an Israeli strike on the ayatollahs' nuclear program will not be without consequence. Hezbollah and splinter Gaza militant groups are likely to attack Israel in a display of their solidarity, albeit only in a limited effort. Judging from past flare-ups, these groups fully understand Israel’s red lines, knowing exactly what ranges and what rates of rocket fire will not draw the IDF into a confrontation, which could compromise their grip on power.
It was Barbara Tuchman, the World War I historian, who once said, “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.” A century later it appears as though stability in the Middle East hinges on a dangerous equation. If Netanyahu wishes to go down in history as the prime minister who saved Israel from a nuclear Iran instead of the man who invited massive destruction upon Israel, he has very little room for error.
Daniel Nisman is an Intelligence Manager at Max Security Solutions, a risk consulting firm based in Tel Aviv. Avi Nave is a political consultant based in Tel Aviv.