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Iranian arms transfers through Beirut airport could ignite the Middle East

Earlier this year, Israel attacked the Damascus airport after Iran transferred missiles and weapons to Damascus on civilian flights. Israel routinely strikes Iran’s weapons transfers by ground and precision missile factories in Syria, but commercial flights to a civilian airport have not been a primary path for these weapons deliveries.  

On the ground, the most direct path from Iran to its Hezbollah and Syrian proxies is through the Iraq-Syria border near Al-Tanf, where a small American military presence monitors Islamic State activity and acts as a bulwark against Iranian weapons transfers. Iran is forced to take less direct routes to transfer its arms, including through the border town of Abu Kamel, which is monitored by Israeli intelligence in the deadly cat-and-mouse game between Iran and Israel. 

Now, Beirut International Airport is on Israel’s radar, because Iran has flown weapons on civilian flights to supply arms to its Hezbollah proxy. Hezbollah controls Beirut airport and the Lebanese government. Iran also has positioned precision weapons factories near the Beirut airport and purposely put military facilities and weapons next to civilian areas. An example is an open-source revelation by the Israeli research organization Alma, showing aerial photographs of weapons factories next to a gas company and a school in Lebanon’s Ebba and Jnah neighborhoods. Using human shields is a war crime, a tactic also employed by Hamas against Israel in Gaza. 

Targeting the Beirut airport could raise the hackles of the Biden administration and the European Union, fearing that the fragile Lebanese government will be thrown into further chaos. However, the worry that an Israeli attack on the Beirut airport may ignite a larger confrontation between Israel and Iran’s proxies is of most concern. As Israel’s Channel 12 reported, “[Israeli] strikes on Hezbollah’s home turf could lead to reprisals by the terror group, which has significant firepower pointed at Israel, creating a dilemma for Jerusalem.”  

The Biden administration must shift its diplomatic efforts into high gear to see if they still have influence with the other minority populations of Syria — the Sunnis, Druze and Christians — who don’t want Lebanon again turned into a battlefield. With Hezbollah’s approval, the U.S. mediated a maritime deal between Lebanon and Israel last month that was thought to be an Israeli concession to avoid a confrontation with Hezbollah over disputed gas fields. That agreement and its temporary ceasefire could be endangered if Israel strikes Beirut airport. 

Hezbollah took a pounding in 2006 in the Second Lebanon War, from which it took years to recover, and they may not be anxious or ready for another fight. Hezbollah lauds itself as the only effective force against the Israelis, having neutered the Lebanese Armed Forces. But Hezbollah is concerned that the Lebanese people will blame them for Israeli strikes against civilian infrastructure next to Hezbollah military facilities, potentially weakening their dominance over the government. An Israeli strike in Lebanon would bring the usual European condemnation of the civilian casualties made unavoidable by Iran’s embedding military assets in civilian areas. But Israel would argue it had no choice but to strike, if the weapons shipments included precision-guided missiles.  

For its part, Hezbollah has limited autonomy as it follows the instructions of its patron and master in Tehran. The Lebanese Shiites of Hezbollah follow the orders of Iran’s Supreme Leader under the principle of the guardianship of the jurist, Wilayat al-Faqih. In other words, it is up to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to determine how high they want to raise the temperature with Israel. Many believe Iran is not ready to activate Hezbollah fully, but another theory is that they might welcome a Lebanese war to deflect attention from the ongoing protests in Iran’s streets.  

The battle between Israel and Iran in Lebanon and Syria is called the “War Between the Wars.” Iran aims to strengthen Hezbollah, create a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, and then destabilize Jordan and the West Bank to encircle Israel in a “ring of fire.” Iran wants to combine this with possession of nuclear weapons to checkmate Israel.  

What is certain is that Israel, under any government, right or left, will not allow Iran to establish a permanent presence in Syria and will do what it takes to slow the transfer of game-changing weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iranian militias dominating the Iraqi army are also under the watchful eye of Israel and periodically attacked in Iraqi territory.  

It would behoove the Biden administration not to wait until it is too late and to use its highest-ranking diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to persuade Iran to stop using the Beirut airport for weapons transfers. Assuming Iran gave its approval to Hezbollah for the maritime deal, diplomacy might accomplish this. 

A new confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah on a front that has been quiet since 2006 could upend the Middle East. Let’s hope the Biden administration understands the high stakes.  

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.

Tags Hezbollah Iran Israel Lebanon weapons

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