Will Hezbollah Strike the Karish Rig?

In recent days the leader of the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly threatened to attack the Israeli Karish gas drilling rig, which is based in the Mediterranean, if his demands are ignored. Naturally the question arises as to how serious are these warnings?

In assessing the credibility of the threats it must be recognized that Hezbollah possesses significant capabilities to enable it to damage or even destroy the rig. However the question is does it also have the intent to launch such a potentially self-destructive operation?

Hezbollah, a full fledged Iranian proxy, is unlikely to take a risky gamble of this sort without first obtaining the green light from its masters in Tehran. But Iran is unlikely to give its blessings unless it concludes that Hezbollah’s main role as a stopgap strategic deterrent to an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities would not be jeopardized if Israel retaliates, or that the organization’s deterrent mission was no longer necessary.

Tehran’s consent could thus come if it assesses that Israel lacks the capability to attack its nuclear sites or that such an attack will cause only minor damage due to Iran’s active and passive air defences and the hardening and dispersal of its nuclear facilities.

In November 2018, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted that Israel was now “weaker” than it was 10 or 20 years ago, listing a number of military “defeats” he said the Jewish state had supposedly suffered over the years.

Likewise Deputy Commander for Operations of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Brig. Gen. Abbas Nilforoushan stated in an interview with the Tasnim news agency in September 2019, that “Israel is not in a position to threaten Iran….Iran has encircled Israel from all four sides,” adding that after a conflict with Iran, “Nothing will be left of Israel.”

In the same vein, last April Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian reportedly told Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Political Bureau of the Hamas terrorist group ruling the Gaza Strip, that the Zionist regime is so “shaky” that it cannot stand against the Palestinian uprising and resistance.

Thus the theme of Israel’s weakness which ostensibly rules out it attacking Iran, has been a leitmotif through many Iranian pronouncements over the years. Yet it is uncertain to what extent the Iranian leadership really believes its own bluster.

It is, therefore, entirely reasonable to postulate that Iranian leaders may actually estimate that Israel has the capacity to attack and even cause significant damage to their nuclear sites. Yet they may still issue the green light precisely because they assess that a war with Hezbollah would attrit the IDF to such an extent that in its aftermath Israel would no longer pose a meaningful threat to Iran’s nuclear program for years to come.

However, in contrast to these speculations about Iran’s presumed calculations several facts must be considered:

First, to date Iran has assiduously avoided crossing the nuclear threshold. While this could be chiefly related to a concern over a possible military response by the US whose leaders have vowed to prevent a nuclear Iran, (as well as its own yet-to-be overcome technical hurdles) it is likely also related to the certainty that Israel will react by launching an all out preemptive war.

Second, Iran’s large and continuous investment in the building up of Hezbollah’s long-reach capabilities indicates clearly its ongoing interest in the organization acting as a stopgap deterrent to an Israeli attack.

Third, Hezbollah’s avoidance of a large scale confrontation with Israel over the past 16 years is motivated by a variety of reasons not the least of which is Iran’s disinterest in a conflict which could severely degrade the group’s capability, especially its rocket arsenal, to perform its strategic deterrence mission.

Fourth, Israel’s relentless covert attacks inside Iran certainly indicate its continued ability to harm Iran. It also demonstrates Israel’s intelligence reach inside the country. Importantly, the ongoing clandestine campaign should quash any doubts about Israel’s commitment to defend itself even preemptively.

Finally, Israel’s ability to operate secretly inside Iran must be of grave concern to the mullahs who understand their own safety could be on the line in case of war. This could serve as another powerful disincentive to giving the green light to Hezbollah.

Indeed the Financial Times on July 19 said a feeling of “anxiety at the highest levels of the Iranian establishment” was noticeable over the series of Israeli-attributed attacks. This was after the New York Times reported on April 20, 2021 that Iran was “rattled” by Israel’s stealthy strikes at key targets and that the secret campaign has had drastic and long-lasting effects.

For its part Hezbollah may believe an attack on Karish will result in a limited skirmish exactly as happened when Iran fired 20 rockets from Syria into Israel in 2018. However it cannot be sure of the Israeli response. After all Nasrallah himself admitted he underestimated Israel’s response in 2006 when an attack by his group on an IDF patrol, which resulted in the killing and abduction of several soldiers, led to Israel launching the Second Lebanon War. One thing is for certain however, whatever the scope and the results of the engagement Hezbollah (and Iran) will claim victory.

Israeli publicized assessments that a Hezbollah attack on the Karish rig will likely result in a “few days of fighting” are thus grossly mistaken as they undermine the uncertainty Hezbollah faces when weighing the pros and cons of a possible action. It also impacts negatively on Iran’s incentive to give Nasrallah the green light. The more Tehran fears Israel might react to an attack on the rig with an all out assault the greater will be its concern that Hezbollah is dealt a decisive blow and is deprived of its ability to fulfill its deterrent mission. Consequently, Iran’s inclination to endorse (or instigate) a Hezbollah strike would diminish.

The nonstop Israeli chatter predicting a brief flare up is therefore utterly irresponsible, serves its enemies’ interests and could actually invite the attack Nasrallah has promised.

Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles and op-eds on national security issues.

About the Author
Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles and op-eds on national security issues.
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