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Iran: The Ascendant Threat

Iran: The Ascendant Threat
Aviation Week & Space Technology
08/14/2006, page 58

Now that Iran is known to have abetted--or instigated--Hezbollah's attack on Israel with advisers, not just weapons (see p. 20), it's possible to see the fighting in southern Lebanon for what it is. Until now it has seemed to be a relatively contained conflict in which a nation is defending itself from a terrorist group, albeit with a risk of escalation and disturbing civilian casualties on both sides. Now, it's clear that far more is involved, and far more is at stake.

The ability of a small but determined minority to rob its country or a neighboring country of peace and stability is nothing new. The Irish Republican Army, separatists in Spain and rebels in Chechnya, among other groups, have followed this path. On Israel's other borders and inside that nation itself, so has Hamas.

What's different here is the growing influence of Iran. It seems clear that Iran is emerging as the most potent military force in the Middle East, now that the U.S. has eliminated Iraq as a counterweight. Keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran's arsenal may now depend on diplomacy, given uncertainty about U.S. intelligence capabilities and whether military action against Iran would be feasible, much less wise. And now, Iran has a puppet in Lebanon, a surrogate to visit on Israel the hatred of the region's extremists and sweep along the moderate Arab states.

Hezbollah is different, too, in its capabilities. This is no ragtag bunch firing rocket-propelled grenades from behind wrecked cars. They are capable of that, but through Iran's patronage they also are proficient with U.S.-designed TOW anti-tank weapons, Chinese ground-to-ground missiles, several types of Russian anti-armor weapons and Iranian UAVs. Hezbollah has become more sophisticated in hardware and tactics during the past few years.

This is asymmetric warfare taken a step forward. Iran's combination of oil wealth and religious fanaticism, and the ready availability of arms, has made it so.

It will be much more difficult to end Iran's influence in Lebanon than it was to oust Syria a few years ago, but this is a necessary first step in restoring the Israel-Lebanon border and Lebanon's control over its own territory. Establishing a peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon will be equally difficult and equally necessary. Iran is a player in all of this, and unlike Syria, Iran doesn't need or want financial or political help from any other country. The combination of financial independence and political volatility is a potent bargaining advantage.

But this is where the situation is leading everyone. The U.S., seen increasingly around the world as having taken Israel's side, almost inevitably will be a follower, not the leader. Asymmetric warfare in Iraq and Lebanon is giving two of the world's most powerful, technologically advanced military machines far tougher problems than they ever would have expected. Let's just hope that U.S. defense strategists take to heart the lessons that come out of these experiences.