Bluffs and Counter Bluffs as the War Widens

When Defence Secretary Austin last visited “Israel”, he clearly ‘green-lighted’ Israeli military action to push Hizbullah away from south Lebanon.

The Washington Post reported on 7 January 2024 that Biden has tasked his staff with preventing widening regional war. The piece was purposefully leaked (as even the Washington Post admit) — and is a bluff.

When Defence Secretary Austin last visited “Israel”, he clearly ‘green-lighted’ Israeli military action to push Hizbullah away from south Lebanon, to the north of the Litani River — about 29 kms north of the Blue Line southern boundary.

Austin’s one caveat however, was that this military action should await the outcome of Biden Envoy Hochstein’s attempt to persuade the provisional government of Lebanon to ‘guarantee’ the disarming and the displacement of Hizbullah north of the River Litani.

Reports suggest that close to 250,000 Israelis sit in hotels (at the Israeli government’s expense), awaiting the moment when they can return to their homes in “northern Israel”, from which they were evacuated by the Authorities.  Defence Minister Gallant has promised them that they will return home by late January (i.e. soon — later this month). The residents however, have rejected Gallant’s proposal, fearing Hizbullah being situated so close to their homes (and, as they see it, the possibility of a new 7 October event arriving from the north).

To demand Hizbullah disarm and retreat 40 kms from the border is simply ‘magical thinking’. In south Lebanon, Hezbollah is a central part of the fabric of life in almost every village and has been for some 500 years; it will not be moved and will not disarm.

So, US envoy Hochstein now concedes that moving Hizbullah is no longer his focus. The US, he now says, wants “calm” on the southern border: i.e. the aim now being merely to separate the Lebanese front from that of Gaza (so that the war be contained to Gaza). This would, of course, give “Israel” latitude to continue its operations against Hamas and Gaza, without fear of the northern front igniting.

Here then is the first key bluff: The Biden Administration was never seriously trying to prevent the widening of the war; military action against Hizbullah was already ‘green-lighted’. Only this weekend Minister Ben Gvir insisted that “Israel” preemptively strike Hizbullah in Lebanon. And Netanyahu emphasised: “No one will stop us”.

So, widening the war is ‘ok’. Biden’s aim rather is to give Israel maximum latitude to achieve its maximalist aims — tempered only by the ‘kicker’ that he doesn’t want a widened war to draw-in Iran or Russia into the frame. (Russia in respect to Syria.)

British Defence Secretary Grant Shapps on Saturday warned Iran that the world is “running out of patience”, saying that ‘the Iranian regime’ needs tell its “Houthi thugs” to call off their Red Sea attacks, and for other Iranian ‘proxies’ to “cease and desist” their actions, warning that a “limit has been truly crossed”. Shapps warned:

“We see you; we see through what you’re doing. We see how you’re doing it, particularly the Houthi rebels, and no good can come from it”.

Of course, this is pure nonsense too. It is a bluff. Houthis maybe Shi’a — as are Iranians — but they are Zaidis and not the same Shi’a as Iranians — Iranians are ‘twelver’ Shi’a; whereas Houthis are ‘severners’. The fiercely independent Houthis (Ansarallah) may see eye to eye with Iran on many things, yet no one, but no one, tells them what to do.

“Who attacked your country?” Ansarallah leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi asked Friday at a rally in San’a’s Sabeen Square. Tens of thousands of Yemenis who had gathered there to protest the US and UK strikes replied: “America”! “America is the devil. America is your enemy. America is terrorism,” the Houthi leader responded.

Biden and Shapps’ bluster will be called by Ansarallah. They will not ‘cease and desist’. Confrontation with the US has long been an ambition for Ansarallah. The Wall Street Journal aptly describes the position into which the US and UK are cornering themselves: “The Strikes Give Houthis the Enemy They Long Sought”.

Elisabeth Kendall notes:

“The Houthis are used to sustaining heavy airstrikes and know the US won’t escalate because it won’t want to put boots on the ground or further inflame regional tensions. This now makes them [the Houthis] the victim-heroes, the heroic martyrs, they have no real reason to stop – and have a high tolerance for casualties”.

White House spokesman John Kirby said that the US doesn’t want war with Yemen, but won’t hesitate to take further action. The bluff here, as Larry Johnson notes, is that neither the UK nor the US have the ability for a sustained naval presence off the Yemeni coastline, where cheap drones and missiles can easily exhaust the vessels’ supply of air defence missiles.

The greater bluff in play, however, is that towards Iran. The neo-cons in the US have long yearned for military action to be taken against Iran, but Iran’s deterrence ability has transformed in the intervening years since the US hawks began calling to ‘bomb, bomb, bomb Iran’.

The bottom line facing the US must be the Iranian ‘Red Pill’. Put bluntly, ‘yes’ the US can rain destruction on Iranian civil infrastructure, but no longer on either its nuclear infrastructure, nor its dispersed concealed ‘Red Pill’ missile defence.

Remember what former Israeli PM, Ehud Barak, wrote in Time Magazine in 2022:

“[T]he reality is this: Both Israel and (for sure) the US can operate over the skies of Iran against this or that site or installation and destroy it. But once Iran is a de-facto threshold nuclear state [which it now is], this kind of attack simply cannot delay the Iranians from turning nuclear. Indeed, under certain circumstances it might accelerate their rush toward assembling that bomb, and provide them a measure of legitimacy on grounds of self-defence”.

“In other words, unlike the surgical operations that were considered 12 years ago, or could have been considered 4 years ago – operations which could have substantially delayed the Iranian program (while risking a war with Iran) – the present possibilities bring all the risk of war (especially for Israel) – with only scant likelihood of delaying the Iranian nuclear program …“It’s time to face reality”…”.

The Red Pill?

The Red Pill that Iran deploys is simply this: Were Iran to be attacked by the US, the destruction will not be of assistance to “Israel”. For “Israel” will no longer exist (deeply-buried and dispersed dead-hand missiles will be launched long after the western raids have ceased).

This is no bluff.  Iran definitely does not want a ‘big war’, but has been preparing for twenty years against just such contingency.

The opinions mentioned in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Al mayadeen, but rather express the opinion of its writer exclusively.

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