10/19/2012 04:40 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

A Defensive Attack by Iran to Preserve its Regional Role

Paris - It is quite significant that Hezbollah is being implicated, by a decision from Iran, in the battle taking place inside Syria, by providing fighters and equipment, and in attempting to divert attention away from the battle in Syria, by sending an unmanned drone dubbed "Ayoub" over Israeli territory. This means that the Islamic Republic of Iran is almost panicking over the collapse of its regional role through the gateway of Syria, at a time when it is not yet ready to rest in the assurance of having obtained military nuclear capabilities, although it is nearing such an achievement. This is the phase in-between - the phase where falling into the abyss is a possibility - and it explains the qualitative escalation that took place this week when Hezbollah claimed responsibility for sending the reconnaissance drone Ayoub, which was downed by Israel, with the latter threatening to retaliate for this breach of its airspace. Yet Iran's wars in the Arab arena are not restricted to a direct military role in favor of the regime and against the opposition in Syria, in violation of Security Council resolutions issued under Chapter VII of the UN Charter that ban Tehran from supplying weapons and personnel to anyone beyond its borders. The circumstances under which Iran finds itself are also leading it towards engaging at a high level - specifically through Lebanese capabilities - in the cyberspace war, which it is waging from Beirut's southern suburb - Hezbollah's stronghold- against the interests of the United States and the international community, in revenge for the similar wars being waged by the West and Israel against its nuclear program.

There is also what was mentioned by German magazine Der Spiegel about plans by Iran's Commander of the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) to cause an environmental catastrophe in the Strait of Hormuz. The aim is to block the marine route to oil exports, as well as to cause panic in Western countries that rely on oil from the Gulf region, with the aim of forcing them to lift the economic sanctions imposed on Iran, which are truly stifling the regime in Tehran. Thus, Iran's leadership has woven a defensive attack strategy for the two pillars of its presence and its very existence: obtaining military nuclear capabilities, which would make Iran a nuclear state and a member of the major players' club... and maintaining its ambitions of regional hegemony. Its aim is to gain a regional role of influence and sway within vital Arab countries, including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon - the latter providing it with a direct front against Israel that it uses in proxy wars via its organically connected partner, Hezbollah. But will such a defensive attack strategy then bear testimony for the arrogance of Iran's leadership and its trust that the weakness of others will provide it with both nuclear capabilities and a regional role at the same time? Or will quietly besieging this leadership thwart "Tehran's objectives"?

The answer lies with Russia's leadership, which has become a clear ally of the axis that includes the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. Yet Moscow too is lost in the depths of its own problems, after it has backed itself into a corner and become its own worst enemy, not just that of the Syrian opposition. It in turn is looking for a lifeline, despite the haughtiness of its President, Vladimir Putin, and the arrogance of its Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, as they both realize that they have engaged Russia in a losing battle. The answer lies in Washington as well. The nationalist fanaticism that blinds those in power to clear thinking is not just a characteristic of Russia, but also of Iran, Turkey and Israel. It forms the motivation for recklessness. Yet those in power also understand the motives of restraint. And those in power engaged in this deadly dance over the dismembered bodies of Syrians are wavering between restraint and recklessness, while waiting for the end of the presidential elections in the United States - the sole superpower in the world today.

President Barack Obama could boast of having achieved restraint to the degree of excess, but he has now entered the final stage - that of accountability for his hesitation, his restraint and his disregard of facts under the pretext of not wanting to be reckless. Major American commentators have begun to hold him accountable for his mistakes, not necessarily towards Iran, but certainly towards Syria. Washington Post editorialist Jackson Diehl wrote this week of "How Obama Bungled the Syrian Revolution", and said that the result of Obama's foreign policy, based on weakness and defeatism, was a "strategic disaster: a war in the heart of the Middle East that is steadily spilling over to vital US allies, such as Turkey and Jordan, and to volatile neighbors, such as Iraq and Lebanon". He added that Obama was not "solely responsible" for the chaos in Syria, but that "his serial miscalculations have had the consistent, -if unintended, effect of enabling Syria's Bashar al-Assad - first to avoid international isolation, then to go on slaughtering his own population with impunity", pointing to the US Administration indulging in the illusion of Bashar al-Assad being a "reformer", which caused it to "stand by for months while Assad's security forces gunned down what were then peaceful pro-democracy marchers".

Over the next two weeks until the American presidential elections are held, it is unlikely for any of the major powers to adopt policies qualitatively or radically different from those they have lately been relying on. And what the five permanent members of the Security Council have been relying on is the mission of Joint United Nations and Arab League Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who went on a tour of the Middle East this week, asking its leaders to put their influence and role in Syria to use in order to secure a ceasefire during the Eid Al-Adha holidays. Brahimi is perfectly well aware that the United States, Britain and France are hiding behind the third Russian-Chinese veto in order to justify their own powerlessness or defeatism. He is also well aware of the fact that Russian nationalist fanaticism is preventing Putin or Lavrov from admitting to the limits of Russian influence, whether with the regime in Damascus or on the broader Syrian scene, and that they will not be able to decide the fate of Syria as if it were Chechnya.

Indeed, Sergey Lavrov's statement that "Assad will never leave" should not be blown out of proportion and should be viewed within the framework of Russia's limited influence with Assad - as an unspoken admission by high-ranking officials of the failure of Russia's diplomatic efforts with Assad. Yet it should also be viewed from the perspective of the arrogance that prevents Russia from taking the decision to lift its protection from Assad, making it seem neither serious nor reliable as an ally. Most likely, Lakhdar Brahimi is trying to apply his own model for holding regional-international negotiations in order to resolve the Syrian crisis the way he did in Afghanistan through what was called the 6+2, in reference to a group of countries that included the United States and Iran together behind closed doors to find solutions for Afghanistan and to create windows of opportunity and build bridges with one another.

Brahimi is perhaps currently building on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's "Quartet", despite its foundations having been shaken in view the Saudi refusal to participate in it, having found it to be a means to buy and in fact to waste time. Nonetheless, the idea of bringing together the major countries of the region - the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey and Egypt - to discuss the issue of Syria is interesting to Brahimi, as a basis for his diplomatic initiative. He perhaps now has in mind a 4+5, i.e. Morsi's Quartet and the Quintet of major powers at the Security Council - the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France - or a 4+7 if one were to add the Syrian regime and opposition to the equation. The problem with this method is that it takes a very long time - time which the current situation in Syria does not allow, in view of the hundreds of deaths occurring on a daily basis.

The other problem resides in the sheer amount of wishes to repair regional and international relations between countries, as the situation in Syria cannot bear to wait for such nearly impossible repairs to mature. To begin with, the difference is vast between the stance taken by Iran, which clings absolutely to Bashar al-Assad's regime remaining in power under any circumstances, and the stances taken by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which reject the notion of Assad remaining in power after more than thirty thousand Syrians have fallen victim in the battle for power. A third problem resides in legalizing or legitimizing the regional role played by the Iran inside an Arab country, and granting Tehran strong bargaining chips, not just in terms of the regional role and hegemony it wishes to have, but also in terms of its nuclear ambitions. And it will not be possible to provide all the time this would require without reaching a ceasefire and serious negotiations over the process of political transition in Syria. Yet, as Lavrov said, "Assad will never leave" unless he is forced to, and nothing on the horizon indicates that Tehran would be willing to abandon him or to sacrifice a regime loyal to it, or that Moscow would be willing to lift its cover from him, making him and his regime extremely fragile. But on the other hand, none of the members of the axis that includes Russia, Iran, China, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah has the ability to maintain the current situation as it is to no end, especially as sanctions are leading to serious erosion of the Iranian and Syrian economies, and as Hezbollah now warns of additional sanctions that will restrict its freedom inside as well as outside of Lebanon, particularly in locations vital to it, such as the airport.

According to an opinion held by some, Iran's decision to involve Hezbollah in the war in Syria and to implicate Lebanon in a confrontation with Israel, as a result of having had Hezbollah send the drone Ayoub to breach Israeli airspace, is a decision born of weakness, and a sign of arrogance, not of strength. To be sure, the situation in Syria is worsening, and not in the regime's favor, according to those who hold this opinion. It has therefore been decided in Tehran to implicate the Lebanese arena early in order to shift the attention away from Syria.

Benjamin Netanyahu does not need an additional dose of recklessness or of nationalist fanaticism, and subsequently not one designed to provoke him into waging attacks against Hezbollah targets or any other targets in Lebanon as revenge for Ayoub. The American elections may be a motive for restraint. Netanyahu may retain the element of surprise to get revenge from Hezbollah making light of him, while ignoring Iran's role, because Israel is unable or unwilling to directly confront Iran. The drone Ayoub may represent more of a political card than it does a radical breakthrough in the military equation. All of this places Lebanon in jeopardy by a decision from the axis that includes Tehran, Beirut's southern suburb, Damascus, Beijing and Moscow.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned in his latest report on Resolution 1559 that "Lebanon's stability and sovereignty have been severely challenged", stating that he was "deeply concerned by the impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon" and "that the increasing number of reports of activities in Syria by Hezbollah, a member of the governing coalition, could jeopardize this [coalition's] policy [of dissociation] and ultimately Lebanon's stability".

Concerning the drone Ayoub, Ban Ki-moon writes that Hezbollah sending such a drone into Israel represents "a reckless provocation that could lead to a dangerous escalation threatening Lebanon's stability", and calls on Hezbollah's leadership to disarm and restrict its activities to those of a Lebanese political party. The Secretary-General also called upon the Iranian government, which has strong ties to Hezbollah, to stop supplying it with weapons in violation of Resolutions 1559 and 1747, so as to avoid dragging Lebanon into a devastating war. It is not enough for the Secretary-General of the United Nations to show the threat looming over Lebanon and the repercussions it would have on peace and security in the region. The international community must take a clear and decisive stance on this matter, because dragging Lebanon into this confrontation would mean that Tehran would have taken the decision to use it as an arena for proxy wars in order to salvage the deteriorating situation in Syria and to divert the attention away from the downfall of the regime there.

The United States bears such a responsibility as much as Russia does, as hiding behind one's finger or burying one's head in the sand will have a backlash on all local, regional and international players alike.