An Israeli strike in the heart of Damascus, an alleged Iranian attack on an Israeli oil tanker in the Arabian Sea, Tehran being closer than ever to a nuclear weapon: all the ingredients for a new Iranian-Israeli escalation are on the table.
While the confrontation is not playing out directly on Lebanese soil, how long will Lebanon keep at a distance from this dynamic should the regional storm gain momentum?
Hilal Khachan, a professor of political science and author of several books on Hezbollah, is reassuring.
“Iran does not want a military confrontation with Israel, and Hezbollah even less,” Khachan told L’Orient-Le Jour. “Iran has denied any link to the attack on the Israeli oil tanker.”
“Tehran also claims not to have suffered any losses from the [Israeli] strike in Damascus. This is a way of keeping its distance from the rising tensions. [Iran] is well aware that responding to such provocations would be costly,” he added.
On Sunday morning, a reported Israeli airstrike targeted a Damascus residential area near an Iranian cultural center, killing 15 people.
There have been reports that senior officials of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah were killed in the attack, but nothing has been confirmed so far.
Iranian targets are often the target of Israeli raids in Syria. This strike, however, was out of the ordinary because of the nature of the location and the number of victims.
Above all, it came in an extremely tense context as Iran is approaching the threshold of enriched uranium needed to make a nuclear bomb.
Bloomberg reported Sunday that the International Atomic Energy Agency has detected 84 percent enriched uranium in Iran, just short of the 90 percent needed to produce a bomb.
At the same time, the prospect of resurrecting the nuclear deal between Iran and the 5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) is growing less likely.
Lebanon is not directly affected by this new escalation.
“Hezbollah only wants calm in southern Lebanon,” Joe Macaron, an independent Middle East analyst, told L’Orient-Le Jour.
The party is swamped dealing with the fallout from the socio-economic crisis in Lebanon, which a war with Israel would only exacerbate.
This is especially true since Beirut and Tel Aviv signed a maritime demarcation agreement last October, with a green light from Hezbollah, which some see as a first step toward a form of normalization between the two countries.
The deal has, in effect, paved the way for Beirut to exploit the Qana gas field — a boon for the party, which sees gas and oil exploitation as the best option to get out of the crisis.
“The [popular] base of the 'resistance' is strongly affected by the crisis,” Faysal Abdel Sater, an observer close to Hezbollah, told L’Orient-Le Jour.
“But Hezbollah will not hesitate to take up arms if Israel violates the maritime agreement and puts pressure on international companies to prevent Lebanon from investing in its wealth,” he added.
In his latest speech, party leader Hassan Nasrallah openly threatened Israel.
“If the Americans are planning to create chaos to bring about the collapse of Lebanon, I tell them: You will lose everything in Lebanon. We will use our weapons where they will hurt you, even if this will lead to a war with Israel. You should expect chaos in the whole region,” Nasrallah threatened.
He added that the armed party will not stand idly by if Israel violates the maritime agreement.
“These are merely empty threats that are part of the one-upmanship between the two sides,” Macaron said.
In light of the current situation, it seems unlikely that Hezbollah would trigger a new conflict with Israel. The two sides have not clashed since the July 2006 war.
Israel also seems to benefit from the calm and stability on its northern border and has no interest in challenging this status quo.
But one cannot completely rule out the scenario where Lebanon could become a collateral victim of an Israeli-Iranian confrontation.
In the coming weeks, it is likely that the Israelis will increase their operations in an effort to curb — if not destroy — Iran's nuclear program.
Each of these operations carries a risk of escalation on a regional scale. Could Iran be tempted, at some point, to respond to Israel via Hezbollah, from Lebanon?
For the moment, this scenario is unlikely, but it is something that could be considered if the confrontation takes on a different scale.
This is probably the main risk for Lebanon, as the country will not be a starting point of a new confrontation but rather the scene of a conflict’s extension.
Also, in a climate of great tension, Iran and Hezbollah will surely be less inclined to make concessions in the domestic arena, which could translate into a further disruption of the negotiations on the Lebanese presidential election.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.