Who's afraid of big, bad Hezbollah?

Patrick Barry noticed this very interesting passage from the U.S. intelligence community's annual threat assessment:

We judge that, unlike al-Qa'ida, Hizballah, which has not directly attacked US interests
overseas over the past 13 years, is not now actively plotting to strike the Homeland. However, we cannot rule out that the group would attack if it perceives that the US is threatening its core interests.

He then compares it to the Director of National Intelligence's assessment in 2007 (Hezbollah's "self confidence and hostility toward the US...could cause the group to increase its contingency planning against US interests"), in 2008 (Hezbollah has "expressed the desire to use cyber means to target the United States"), and 2009 (Hezbollah "continues to be a formidable terrorist adversary with an ability to attack the US Homeland").

It's worth pointing out that Hezbollah hasn't changed appreciably since 2007; the only thing that has shifted is the U.S. assessment of the party. And it's a little strange to point out that Hezbollah won't change its plans unless the United States is "threatening its core interests."  That is undoubtedly true, but of course the U.S. government is a threat to Hezbollah's interests. The only question is how serious the U.S.-backed challenge to Hezbollah's status as Lebanon's preeminent armed force is; ever since the country was seized by a widespread, if largely contrived, spirit of reconciliation following May 2008, the answer is "not very." However, when the next political crisis arises, expect Hezbollah to find its way back on the list of threats to the United States.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images


What's Ahmadinejad up to?

Scott Lucas, a professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham whose blog has somehow emerged as a go-to place for Iran news, writes on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent offer to send the Islamic Republic's uranium abroad:

That is a major shift, and it remains to be seen why Ahmadinejad made his move (and note that he made it in a hastily-called interview on national television), as well as signalling that there was talks about trading three US detainees for Iranian prisoners held abroad. The immediate speculation would be that there have been behind-the-scenes talks with brokers such as Turkey; the International Atomic Energy Agency and the US had both signalled in recent days that a deal was still on the table. At the same time, although the President is staying clear of the internal crisis in his public comments and actions, I have to wonder if he has also made this unexpected move to try and grab some “legitimacy” before 11 February.

Er, no. I'm pretty sure that none of these explanations are right. For one thing, the United States isn't actually signaling that the LEU deal is "still on the table." Not only has President Obama pointedly stopped reaching out rhetorically to Iran, he's now lumping Tehran in with Pyongyang -- one Washington Iran hand described the State of the Union address to me as "enemy talk." On and off the record, U.S. officials have in recent weeks all but declared the engagement track dead. Just last Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of Iran, "Now, as we move away from the engagement track, which has not produced the results that some had hoped for, and move toward the pressure and sanctions track..." More enemy talk.

Second, Ahmadinejad's motive in making this offer is pretty clear: He's trying to sow divisions in the U.N. Security Council as it debates a fresh round of economic sanctions against his country. All Russia and China need is a hint of possible cooperation from Iran, and they've got an excuse to either veto tough multilateral sanctions or water them down to the point where they're meaningless. Trust me: I follow this game very closely, and I've seen Iran do the Lucy-with-the-football thing over and over. In the near future, the number of hard-liners in Tehran denouncing the offer will reach a tipping point, and it will be acrimoniously withdrawn.

The unfortunate thing is, Iran's gambit is already working. China's foreign minister has asked that the offer be explored and that Iran be given more time to come around. Russia's foreign minister welcomed Ahmadinejad's remarks, with no apparent doubts about his sincerity.

Some analysts seem to think Ahmadinejad wants the deal because it will bolster his internal standing. I don't see how -- he's made a career out of standing up to the West on the nuclear issue, so it's hard to imagine him feeling like he needs an agreement. Sure, if Iran successfully brings the arrogant Western powers to heel, it'll bolster his argument for an agressive foreign policy. But I don't think a murkier, mutually beneficial arrangement does much to help him.

None of this is to say that there's an urgent crisis here. Iran is still a ways away from having a nuclear weapon, assuming the vaunted new NIE  doesn't tell us otherwise. But I think by now we ought to at least understand how Iran operates pretty well.