The debate over President Obama's Iran nuclear deal has grown increasingly bitter inside the Beltway. The acrimony is unavoidable, and not just because of the hyper-partisanship that is ripping Washington apart from within. Rather, it's because the deal is being painted as the only thing standing in the way of war. But this characterization is not only unfair, because it is binary and fails to account for creative scenarios. Lost in this debate is whether the deal could itself cause a war.
To be sure, war could erupt if Iran cheats. That is a real possibility, given Iran's history of nuclear mendacity. But Iran may actually abide by the deal. If the regime simply waits a decade, it will be in possession of a legitimate industrial-sized nuclear program. As one seasoned Israeli reporter recently noted, a new Israeli strategy document released by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot is planning for other conflicts. This squares with conversations I have had with several senior Israeli officials in recent months. The Middle East war that is most likely to erupt first, as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is one between Israel and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is Iran's most prized non-state proxy. With Iranian weapons, cash, and training, the group has dedicated itself to war with Israel since the early 1980s. Today, according to a senior Israel official I met in July, Hezbollah is pointing 100,000 rockets south at Israel. These rockets, furnished almost entirely by Iran, are dispersed across Lebanon, with many launchers strategically placed in high-density population areas to ensure that Israeli reprisals will be met with charges of war crimes. Hezbollah also now has "precision weapons" (the official wouldn't say more), as well as SA-22 anti-aircraft systems, Yakhont anti-ship missiles, and drones.
One needn't look very far to find Middle East analysts suggesting that the beleaguered Lebanese public is preventing Hezbollah from unleashing this formidable arsenal on Israel, for fear of yet another fierce military response that causes billions of dollars in damage to Lebanon's infrastructure. But concern for Lebanon's well-being has never deterred Hezbollah in the past. What is truly preventing the next torrent of rockets from raining down on Israeli population centers is the terror group's current quagmire.
In a bid to prop up its valued allies in Syria, Iran has dispatched 6,000 to 8,000 Hezbollah fighters to fend off the Sunni militants seeking to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. The war has taken its toll on Hezbollah, as body bags draped in the group's yellow flags continue to stream back from the front. An estimated 1,000 Hezbollahis have fallen since the group first began fighting there in 2013.
The Iran deal may soon give Hezbollah an exit strategy. Tehran is set to receive upwards of $100-$150 billion in cash (frozen funds plus funds released from escrow accounts holding oil proceeds that were only to be spent on approved foreign goods). Even more is coming to Iran in the form of increased oil, petrochemical, auto and gold revenues. The Assad regime could become a major beneficiary. This means that the regime could soon have more cash to pay its fighters and to buy more weapons to target the Sunni rebels waging war against it.
In that event, Hezbollah's services may no longer be in demand and the group could redeploy its troops fighting in Syria. How long that takes depends on how quickly Iranian cash and weapons help the Assad regime consolidate. But once its fighters are safely home, Hezbollah will soon benefit from the same Iranian sanctions relief windfall. As Iran's most important non-state proxy, Hezbollah stands to gain considerably -- from advanced weaponry to cash and training.
But even without a withdrawal from Syria, Hezbollah's battle-hardened fighters may not be content with quiet on their southern front. The group's rhetoric certainly has not mellowed; Hezbollah has been bruising for a fight with Israel since the guns fell silent from the last encounter in 2006. More importantly, Hezbollah views the nuclear deal (like the rest of the region) as a sign that its patron Iran is a burgeoning regional power, and that the military advantage is shifting away from Israel in the Middle East. It may not take long before the first provocation on the border.
And for Israel, it will not take much to be provoked. The Israelis have been quite clear about their frustrations, after having been negotiated into a corner by the P5+1 world powers that ironed out the nuclear deal. Should Israel carry out a military strike on Iran under the shadow of the deal, the country would risk becoming a world pariah.
But Israel is under no such constraints with Hezbollah. In fact, Washington openly acknowledges the possibility of a conflagration between the two, and the White House is now openly touting the fact that it wishes to help arm the Israelis to handle Iran-sponsored regional aggression of this sort.
With the perception that its deterrence is shriveling amidst the very public spat with the Obama White House, Israel will almost certainly wish to make an example of Hezbollah. A victory against the strongest Iranian proxy in the region could make the kind of unequivocal statement Israel believes it needs while it waits to see if Iran holds up its end of the nuclear deal.
However, a war with Hezbollah would not be just another war in the Middle East. It could be the war to end all wars between these two bitter foes. The Israelis are not eager to settle for a partial victory or a bloody tie, as it has in the past. To establish deterrence in the age of an empowered Iran, Israel may seek total victory.
Hezbollah, for its part, will also not stand down. Armed with 100,000 rockets, a deadly arsenal of other ordnance, and now the deep pockets of Iran, it's hard to imagine a negotiated ceasefire.
To be sure, a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel falls short of the nuclear conflict that President Obama seeks to prevent. But it's difficult to say that the choices are between the nuclear deal and war in the Middle East. Should Congress approve the nuclear deal, the Obama Administration will need to determine how to best diffuse this brewing conflict. And should a war erupt, given Washington's obligations to both Tehran and Jerusalem, it may prove challenging to call for calm - on either side.