Hezbollah’s Revenge: Can Iran’s Powerful Proxy Retaliate for Soleimani Without Destroying Lebanon?

Iran has declared that it has concluded its official retaliation for the death of former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani with a largely symbolic missile strike on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces.

– Zarif tweet

Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched.

We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.

— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 8, 2020

However, it now remains to be seen how its "Axis of Resistance" will react, particularly Lebanon-based Hezbollah. 

While eulogizing Soleimani, the group’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah essentially declared open-ended war on all American forces throughout the Middle East, irrespective of an Iranian retaliation. But despite Nasrallah’s bellicosity, Hezbollah is too constrained by domestic factors to directly retaliate against U.S. forces. Indirect attacks are more likely.

In his most recent remarks, Nasrallah conspicuously failed to commit his group to leading the retaliatory fight against U.S. forces. Instead, he stressed that Soleimani’s death was an attack on the entire Resistance Axis, not just Iran or any one faction. He also included an important caveat: stressing Iran wouldn’t demand a response from its proxies, he noted that "the forces of the Resistance Axis must [each] decide [for themselves], how will they deal with this event? How will they handle this event?"

– Abdulla Hawez tweet

The flags behind Iran’s revolutionary guard commander in today’s presser):

Pasdaran (IRGC)
Basij (Iran Army)
Hezbollah (Lebanon)
Ansarullah (Huthis – Yemen)
Hashd Shabi (PMF – Iraq)
Hamas (Palestine)
Liwa Fatemiyoun (Afghans)
Liwa Zainebiyoun (Pakistanis) pic.twitter.com/apzYoPjOhZ

— Abdulla Hawez (@abdullahawez) January 9, 2020

That concession to pragmatism is particularly vital for Hezbollah. For almost three months, Lebanon has been gripped by an uprising against its ruling political class. While this would-be revolution doesn’t directly threaten Hezbollah, it has virtually paralyzed Lebanon, catalyzing its economic collapse.

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As the crisis continues, unemployment is expected to rise exponentially, the Lebanese pound has unofficially become unpegged from the dollar, and even basic foodstuffs are becoming unaffordable. Unchecked, these developments could further fuel the current state of civil unrest, potentially leading to widespread violence. The crisis has also begun affecting neighboring Syria, where Hezbollah has increasingly deepening interests.