By Bobby Ghosh
What keeps Hezbollah’s “gemias”? From the moment Israel began retaliating against Hamas for the October 7 terrorist attack, the world expected the Lebanese militia to join the war, opening a second front in northern Israel. This perspective has been repeatedly floated by Iran, which views Hamas and Hezbollah as vital hubs in its network of proxy militias across the Middle East.
However, the Lebanese group has so far mostly limited itself to firing rockets at Israel, along with some small arms and anti-tank fire. Even more remarkably, its leader, known for his fiery rhetoric, Hassan Nasrallah, has avoided his usual rhetorical outbursts against “the Zionist entity.” He is expected to give his first public speech since Hamas attacked Israel this Friday, nearly a month after Israel began bombing Gaza.
Hezbollah’s restraint suggests that its patrons in Tehran, despite their threats of a wider war against Israel, are reluctant to commit their most valuable asset to the conflict. Of all Iran’s proxies, the Lebanese militia has the longest and closest relationship with the Islamic Republic. It has received more funds, weapons and training than any other organization in the Iranian “network”.
Moreover, Nasrallah’s fighters are hardened by their deployment in the Syrian civil war, while their senior commanders have plenty of experience fighting Israel in the 2006 South Lebanon War.
And yet, Hezbollah’s limited role is not much different from that of other Iranian proxies, such as the Houthi militia in Yemen and Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq. The Houthis have fired missiles in the direction of Israel, while the Hashd have targeted American bases in Iraq.
Why is Nasrallah preventing—or being forced by Iran to prevent—a full-scale attack on Israel? Some analysts believe Tehran is still basking in the “success” of the October 7 Hamas operation, elated that Israel’s rapprochement with the Arab world has stalled and that the war in Gaza is igniting anger across the region and even globally level, against Israel and the US.
Since Hezbollah is the most valuable of Iran’s assets, the regime in Tehran is reluctant to see it damaged and degraded, as it would inevitably find itself in direct confrontation with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Even if it fought the Israeli army to the last, as it did in 2006, Hezbollah would suffer massive losses. With its economy squeezed by economic sanctions, it would take Iran years, even decades, to restore its Lebanese proxy to the combat capability it possesses today.
“Duties” in Syria and Lebanon
Tehran has other reasons to keep Hezbollah’s fighting capability in good shape: it needs Nasrallah to protect other Iranian “fiefdoms” and interests.
In addition to allowing Tehran to maintain a constant level of threat against Israel, Nasrallah’s forces serve two other no less important purposes: they maintain the supremacy of the Shiite Muslim community over the two other main religious communities in Lebanon, the Sunni Muslims and of Maronite Christians (based on a strictly Shia Islamic worldview, the Islamic Republic takes very seriously its uninvited role as protector of Shia Muslims everywhere on Earth). They also support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the most vulnerable of Tehran’s puppets in the Middle East.
Iran cannot afford to lead Hezbollah to abdicate either task. Assad may have survived a long, bloody civil war with the help of Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, but he is left with the responsibility of rebuilding a devastated country while ruling over a resentful populace. Spasms of protest against the Syrian regime, the most recent just last month, are a reminder of its precarious position. For its part, Lebanon is constantly on the brink of economic and political collapse, with the risk of a revival of tripartite sectarian violence.
If Hezbollah began full-scale hostilities with Israel, the economic shock would almost certainly drive Lebanon to the brink. Then Nasrallah would have to defend Hezbollah’s interests inside the country. It would then have to withdraw some of its resources, men and material from Syria – allowing the opposition to Assad to regroup. With Russia embroiled in the war in Ukraine, Iran would bear much of the burden, a position unfamiliar to the theocrats in Tehran, who prefer to let others carry the unwieldy burdens.
Nasrallah could act on his own initiative and lead his forces to act on his rhetoric: his speech next Friday deserves careful study.
However, by opening a second front against Israel, Hezbollah would simultaneously open two other fronts for Iran to deal with. His masters in Tehran would not be pleased.