OpinionMiddle East


To weaken Hezbollah, you have to weaken Iran

There was one small yet welcome development on that front when the United States announced sanctions against an ostensible environmentalist NGO (actually, a front for Hezbollah) called “Green Without Borders.”

The Southern Lebanon border showing the Arab village of Ghajar, open to Israelis since the 2000, Sept. 7, 2022. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
The Southern Lebanon border showing the Arab village of Ghajar, open to Israelis since the 2000, Sept. 7, 2022. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

It’s hardly a revelation that Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shi’a terrorist group in Lebanon, is once again engaging in provocations along Israel’s northern border.

The timing is, from Hezbollah’s perspective, quite favorable. For months, Israel has been wracked by an unprecedented domestic political crisis. Meanwhile, on a global scale, the profusion of armed conflicts that could potentially involve weapons of mass destruction, with Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine emblematic on this point, has left Western countries more nervous than usual. If Hezbollah is betting that Israel’s traditional allies will be more reluctant to speak up for its security because of the general disquiet around the present Israeli government’s judicial reform program, that may not be so wide off the mark.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has been indulging in his usual bombast, telling Israelis in a speech to mark the 17th anniversary of the 2006 war with Israel (which Hezbollah calls the “Divine Victory”) that they will be bombed into the “Stone Age” in any future conflict. “If the battle develops into a war with the axis of resistance, there will be no such thing as Israel,” he crowed. One might add that a conflict of such intensity would probably wipe Lebanon from the map as well, but Nasrallah doesn’t care about that.

There was one small yet welcome development on the threat posed by Hezbollah last week when the United States announced sanctions against an ostensible environmentalist NGO (actually, a front for Hezbollah) called “Green Without Borders.” As U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller explained, the group and its head, Zuhair Subhi Nahla, have allowed their sites to be “used to conduct Hezbollah’s weapons training, to provide support for Hezbollah’s activities along the Blue Line in Southern Lebanon, and to impede the freedom of movement of the U.N. Security Council-mandated United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).”

Praising the U.S. move, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, called on the Security Council to follow America’s example and apply its own sanctions to “Green Without Borders.” That will probably be a more vexing task—not least because UNIFIL representatives have consistently played down the links between “Green Without Borders” and Hezbollah, with its spokesperson Andrea Tenenti insisting as recently as January that the group had done “nothing” to violate Resolution 1701, the Security Council resolution that brought about an end to the fighting in 2006.

In any case, while “Green Without Borders” is a useful example of both Hezbollah’s political cunning and the slowly dawning realization within parts of the international community that nothing will shift the terror group’s main goal of a war of annihilation against Israel, sanctions and other measures targeting a single NGO are not going to shake Hezbollah’s resolve. On this point, the truth hasn’t altered: To weaken Hezbollah, you have to first weaken Iran, its chief sponsor.

Sadly, when it comes to dealing with Iran, President Joe Biden’s administration has shied away from confronting the Islamic regime, seeking instead to mollify its worst instincts. U.S. credibility on this front has been sorely undermined by the antics of Robert Malley, the administration’s Iran envoy and a key architect of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, whose security clearance was suspended this month in circumstances which the State Department has still to explain. Malley is now officially on leave and has gone to teach in the rarefied atmosphere of Princeton University, while the rest of us are left pondering in which direction American policy towards Iran will travel.

All the indications are that the policy of appeasement will continue. It’s not as if the United States has any love for the Iranian regime, which has murdered hundreds of Americans and consistently demonized this country in the 44 years since the Islamist revolution in Iran or that Washington is simply unaware of Iran’s enormous contribution to global instability—from militarily supporting Russian imperialism to aiding Shi’a militias in Iraq and Yemen, as well as Lebanon along with Hamas in Gaza. At root, the United States has accepted that the installation of an Iranian regime amenable to negotiations can only come through the efforts of the Iranian people, and not through outside intervention. Until then—and that could be weeks or months, but most probably years, unfortunately—the United States will have to dance with a partner it has no reason to trust.

In recent weeks, the United States has lifted its freeze upon nearly $6 billion of frozen Iranian assets in exchange for the release of five dual U.S.-Iranian citizens incarcerated in Iranian jails. Of course, one of the jobs of any government is to assist its citizens when they find themselves in distressing circumstances abroad, but the problem here is that the Iranians see any U.S. concessions as a sign of weakness and then push for more.

That is why the talk of reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the technical name for the Iran deal, is so alarming. True, the current administration takes a more cynical view of Iranian ambitions compared with that of former President Barack Obama, who was always painfully clear that regime change was not a goal of his when it came to Iran. The unspoken assumption of the JCPOA is that the regime currently in power will still be in power when the “sunset clauses” in the deal—the expiry of a range of restrictions on research and development following a period of several years—kick in. And if that is the outcome we arrive at, then Obama’s 2015 statement announcing that the deal ensures that “all pathways to a bomb are cut off” will be exposed as the falsehood it always was.

Biden himself has given mixed signals regarding the JCPOA’s revival, even telling a concerned Iranian interlocutor at a campaign stop in December last year that “it is dead, but we’re not gonna announce it.” However, as long as the deal remains the frame of reference for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy, the Iranians will be in a commanding position. And the effects of that will be registered across the region, perhaps in Lebanon most of all.

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