The Israeli Wild-Card
Some observers are predicting a cataclysmic war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah in the near future. Given Hezbollah serves as Iran’s most prominent proxy, there are concerns such a conflict will draw Tehran in as well, risking a major regional conflagration. Israel has, in fact, already clashed numerous times with Iran-backed militias in Syria in recent weeks and months, raising the likelihood of direct warfare between Jerusalem and Tehran.
Although Washington does not possess a mutual-defense treaty with Jerusalem, the former would still support the latter’s war effort through the provision of armaments, logistics, intelligence support, among other products. Furthermore, the United States currently has troops deployed in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and elsewhere throughout the region, along with the ongoing air war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In the event of a war between Israel and Hezbollah, potentially including Iran, it would take incredible diplomatic and military maneuvering to keep the United States directly out of the conflict.
The true course of any conflict is difficult to predict, but Washington should consider the possibility Iran may attempt to distract American support for Israel by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. By creating it crisis on the opposite end of the Middle East, Iran is not so much banking on forcing the United States to reduce support for Israel, but to overstretch its commitments, and create political and strategic costs the American people may not be willing to bear, given the generally controversial nature of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Once more, the importance of narratives emerges—threatening Strait closure mounts pressure on the White House to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict, due to the dread and uncertainty portending a U.S.-Iran clash would conjure.
Once again, however, blockading Hormuz proves an ineffective move if the United States is willing to counter Iran’s provocations. This means Iran is more likely to respond with low-intensity, deniable warfare by utilizing cyberwarfare its deep roster of militias and terrorist groups. Be it Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Gaza’s Hamas, or Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, the Ayatollah is likely to call upon these players long before seriously considering closing the Strait of Hormuz. Hezbollah, in particular, is among the most well-connected of terrorist groups in the world, possessing links with Central and South American drug cartels. A worst-case scenario would involve Hezbollah exploiting these connections to carry out terrorism on American soil. At the very least, it can be expected that Iranian-backed militias like the PMU can be used to attack U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria as the anti-ISIL campaign continues. This would force the United States/coalition to contemplate escalating their involvement in the multiple civil wars in the region, or, to their obvious detriment, refrain from retaliation.
Barring further developments, this latest threat from Tehran to close the Strait of Hormuz will likely pass without incident. It will, however, create the potential for close encounters between U.S. and Iranian naval forces in the region, leaving open a window of heightened risk of miscalculation. Furthermore, the likelihood of a war between Hezbollah and possibly Iran continues to grow by the day. If or when that war happens, the United States and the coalition will find it difficult to stay out of the line of fire.
Edward Chang is a freelance defense, military, and foreign-policy writer. His writing has appeared in the National Interest and War Is Boring.