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Saturday, January 18, 2020

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In the days following the targeted killing of Iranian Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani, a pro-Hezbollah tabloid in Lebanon featured on its front cover a full-page picture of the collapsed U.S. Marine barracks, which a Hezbollah suicide bomber had turned to rubble in October 1983. The message was hardly subtle. 

However, it did represent a shift. For years, the Lebanon-based terrorist group had avoided taking responsibility for the attack. Now, as Iran looks to retaliate for Soleimani’s killing, this bloody episode is especially relevant.


In a speech last week honoring Soleimani, the group’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, amplified this message by once again referencing the 1983 bombing. Mr. Nasrallah dedicated a segment of his speech to praise Iran’s missile attack on the Ain al-Asad U.S. military base in Iraq, because, he explained, it was the first time Iran hit America directly.

“We’re talking here about a state,” Mr. Nasrallah said. This was “not a resistance movement or group,” he added. Such an attack by a resistance group — which is what Hezbollah calls itself — “already took place,” he said. “The [attack on the] Marines in Beirut, this took place.”

As it seeks to avoid direct American retaliation, it is important for Iran to re-establish this separation. However, the dichotomy Mr. Nasrallah sought to assert between the Iranian state and its regional network of “resistance movements,” like Hezbollah, is entirely fictional. In fact, the Marine barracks bombing was equally an operation of the Iranian state, even if the instrument of its execution was Hezbollah.

U.S. intercepts in September 1983 revealed not only Iranian financial and logistical support for the operation, but also an Iranian chain of command with orders coming from Tehran to Beirut via the Iranian ambassador in Damascus, Ali Akbar Mohtashami, “to take spectacular action against the United States Marines.”

A contingent of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was stationed in Lebanon, commanded then by Hossein Dehghan, who, from 2013 to 2017 served as Iran’s minister of defense.

In the Iranian chain of command, Mr. Dehghan was the operator of Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh, the tactical commander of the operation, who directly oversaw the attack on the barracks. Israel killed Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008. Meanwhile, Mr. Dehghan, who now serves as military adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is still involved in targeting Americans. Three days before the missile attack on the U.S. bases in Iraq, he told CNN that Iran would strike at American military sites.

Mr. Dehghan represents continuity between 1983 and today — the constant of the Islamic Republic’s war against the United States. Only, whereas Iran was able to remain immune from actions taken by its regional extensions, things have now changed. Previous U.S. attitudes ranged from a decision not to publicize Iran’s role or hold it directly accountable for actions taken by its surrogates despite awareness of its responsibility, to outright dishonesty about the relationship between Iran and these surrogates, which not only provides Iran with immunity but also legitimizes its fraudulent posture of deniability.

A good example of the latter attitude can be seen in a recent essay by former President Obama’s Middle East point man, Robert Malley, in which he adopts Iran’s obfuscation in the form of a question which he leaves unanswered: “Iran almost certainly helps the Houthis and Iraqi Shiite militias, but does it control them?” Mr. Malley wanted us to believe the answer is no.

Unlike his predecessors, President Trump rejects this fake separation between Iran and the militias it commands. After the IRGC-commanded Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah attacked a U.S. airbase and killed an American civilian contractor, the U.S. military retaliated by striking several positions of the group in Iraq and Syria. When the U.S. embassy was attacked after that, Mr. Trump did not play tit for tat with the militia. He went straight for the head, Soleimani.

More importantly, the president presented Iran with new rules: Any lethal attack on U.S. military or civilian targets, regardless of whether it’s carried out by proxy, will result in the United States hitting 52 pre-selected targets inside Iran itself. And just like that, the president erased Iran’s four-decade long immunity and its make-believe “plausible deniability.”

In his speech, Hezbollah chief Nasrallah quoted his leader, Iran’s Khamenei, in describing the attack on the Ain al-Asad base as but a “slap” — the first step on a long path of retribution. The Iranians have implicitly acknowledged that there are new rules with President Trump. If they or their surrogates decide nevertheless to act recklessly, they should expect that lesson to be reinforced.

• Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracis, where he focuses on Lebanon, Hezbollah, Syria and the geopolitics of the Levant.


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