Averting a Third Lebanon War
In a rare moment of disagreement between Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, Israel’s prime minister last month rejected a U.S.-Russia cease-fire agreement that he said could cement the buildup of Hezbollah and Iranian forces along Israel’s border with Syria.
Mr. Netanyahu has good reason to be concerned. Israel’s head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, confirmed in June a Kuwaiti newspaper report that largely went unnoticed: Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in cooperation with Hezbollah, has been constructing missile-production facilities in Lebanon.
Buried more than 50 meters below ground and protected from aerial attack, these facilities could produce highly sophisticated rockets with ranges of more than 300 miles and equipped with advanced guidance systems.
Israeli officials now say that pre-emptive strikes may be necessary to destroy these missile capabilities before they’re operational. The result could be a bloody war that would see thousands of Hezbollah missiles hurled into Israeli airspace, with punishing Israeli reprisals and hundreds—if not thousands—of civilian deaths on both sides. It would be more chaos for Washington policy makers scrambling to manage a region already in flames.
Iran has long transferred missiles by ground and air through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In recent years, Israel repeatedly struck these transfers of what their officials call “game-changing” weaponry—weapons that could challenge Israel’s military superiority and pose severe threats to its civilians.
Despite significant success against many of these transfers, Hezbollah’s inventory has expanded to more than 150,000 missiles today from an estimated 50,000 missiles at the beginning of the second Lebanon War in 2006. And while many of these projectiles are crude, an increasing number are highly accurate, capable of delivering a massive payload to anywhere in Israel.
Israel, of course, has advanced short-, medium- and long-range missile defenses: the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow systems. But Iran and Hezbollah are now seeking an arsenal that can overwhelm these systems.
If Israeli missile defenses don’t hold—and there’s reason to believe they may not completely prevent a missile onslaught many times the size and potency of what hit the country in 2006—Israeli civilian casualties will mount. At the first sign of such a scenario, the Israeli Air Force might unleash a devastating air campaign and potentially a ground invasion of Lebanon.
Israeli officials have warned that the ensuing war could be much more devastating than the last one between Israel and Lebanon. And they hold Beirut responsible for Hezbollah’s missile buildup. In fact, much of Hezbollah’s arsenal is known to be nestled under or alongside Lebanon’s schools, hospitals and apartment buildings.
Israel would have little choice but to put Lebanese infrastructure in its cross hairs. Which is why officials are sounding the alarm now, to prevent a devastating war.
The Trump administration should make it clear to Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri that it is his responsibility to dismantle these facilities, as well as to ensure that southern Lebanon is free of “any armed personnel, assets and weapons” not under direct control of the Lebanese government, as required by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.
Israeli diplomats are pleading with Washington to also consider other means to deter Iran. For its use of civilians as human shields, Hezbollah and its Iranian patron should be sanctioned by the U.S. and Europe for committing massive human-rights abuses amounting to war crimes.
Washington should sanction companies listed on the Tehran Stock Exchange that are directly controlled by the military entities in charge of Iran’s ballistic-missile programs, which represent about 20% of the stock exchange’s total market capitalization. It should also sanction the thousands of IRGC front companies active in Iran’s economy and penalize the foreign companies that do business with the IRGC.
Additional steps might include the rewriting of U.S. Treasury rules to block Iranian access to the dollar and impose enhanced audit standards on any businesses involved with Iran.
The Trump administration should also sanction those sectors of the Iranian economy supporting the missile program, including mining, metallurgy, telecommunications, construction, energy, automotive and computer science as well as the IRGC-controlled academic institutes involved in this missile work. The IRGC reportedly has created a special department at Imam Hossein University in Iran to train Lebanese and other operatives in missile production.
Sanctions lifted under the Iran nuclear agreement should be restored. Blacklist the Central Bank of Iran and expel Iranian banks from the Swift banking system.
Some will worry this financial pressure could put the Iranian nuclear agreement at risk. So be it. This is the price Iran must pay for pushing the region into another bloody confrontation.
And if sanctions don’t succeed, Israel should be given the wide berth it needs to address the threat using all means at its disposal.