While Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have been quick to use the Gulf’s escalating tensions to rattle sabres, analysts downplayed the likelihood that the exchange of threats would develop into full-scale conflict in the immediate future.
That the situation across the Gulf is tense cannot be denied. Iran claimed to have seized the British oil tanker Stena Impero as it navigated the Strait of Hormuz on July 19, an apparent retaliation against the British impounding of the Iranian vessel Grace 1 in early July. It was the second possible seizure of a foreign vessel by Iranian forces after the UAE-registered Riah was intercepted July 14 in the Gulf.
Adding to an already febrile mix was the downing of an Iranian drone by a US vessel in the strait the day before the Stena Imperio’s interception, an incident denied by Tehran.
Ratcheting tensions up further has been the deployment of a third British warship to the region, ostensibly to replace the frigate HMS Montrose but unlikely to be viewed in Tehran as anything but Western provocation.
Nasrallah, speaking July 12 on Al-Manar TV, said: “Are we going to sit back and watch? Iran won’t be alone in the war, that is clear.”
He threatened Israel with all-out attack by Iran and its proxies in the region, breaking down the nature of the threatened action and potential targets.
Nasrallah’s comments drew a predictably bellicose response from Netanyahu, who used a cabinet meeting July 14 to threaten to deal Hezbollah “and Lebanon a crushing military blow,” irrespective of the large portions of Lebanese society opposed to Hezbollah and its allies.
Analysts downplayed the risks of the verbal exchange.
“I think Nasrallah’s rhetoric here is entirely standard, expected and aligns with how Hezbollah talks about itself and its relationship to Iran,” said Emily Hawthorne, senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at risk consultancy Stratfor.
“That said, Hezbollah is a very potent weapon of Iran’s, should Iran choose to deploy it. However, we are far from that stage in a potential conflict between the US and Iran and I don’t think there’s a near-term risk of Hezbollah deployments.”
Reports in May, confirmed by the US State Department, indicated the withdrawal of Hezbollah’s forces from Syria where they had deployed in significant numbers since 2012.
The United States claimed this was evidence that US sanctions were beginning to affect Iran’s ability to sustain Hezbollah’s presence in Syria. Nasrallah confirmed the pullback on July 12, attributing it to changing circumstances in Syria.
“Hezbollah’s drawdown in Syria is related more to the dynamics of the Syrian conflict winding down,” Hawthorne said, “as well as the reality of how Israel has been able to effectively target Hezbollah assets in Syria.”
Hezbollah’s fighters return from Syria a far more potent military force than when they left.
“Hezbollah’s experience fighting in the Syrian conflict has given it training and practice that has made it a more capable fighting force should a conflict arise in which it (is) deployed,” Hawthorne said.
Hezbollah’s posturing jeopardises significant sections of Lebanon as well as loans and aid packages that help maintain Lebanon’s faltering economy.
In March, concluding a visit to Lebanon, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a news conference to issue a stark choice to policymakers in Beirut: contain Hezbollah or risk the loss of US aid and face potentially devastating sanctions. Last year, the United States provided Lebanon with approximately $800 million in aid.
With its economy faltering and ratings agency Moody’s downgrading Lebanon’s credit worthiness in June, it is aid Beirut can ill afford to lose.
However, Hezbollah remains relatively secure.
“There is no real risk of political censure in Lebanon,” Hawthorne said, “so long as Hezbollah allies hold the presidency (as they currently do) and so long as Hezbollah has a strong political and security position in the country.
“However, if US sanctions on Hezbollah continue to deepen and broaden out to other Hezbollah allies in the country, this will cause some chaos in Beirut.”