- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2006

Hezbollah’s July 12 attack on Israel is seen by some Bush administration officials as a bid to break the West’s unified focus on forcing Iran to stop enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons.

Hezbollah, which is financed and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, struck on the very day the six powers — five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany — met in Paris to discuss the next move after Iran refused to stop its enrichment program. It came days before the Group of Eight summit in Russia, at which President Bush lobbied for a tough stance against Iran’s militant regime, which has threatened to destroy Israel.

“It was to try to divert attention from Iran’s nuke program,” said a senior administration official, when asked why Hezbollah forces based in Lebanon chose that date to launch an attack inside Israel that killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others. Asked how the U.S. knows this, the official declined to comment.

A second senior official also said the attack appeared to be an attempt to shake Europe’s alliance with the U.S. on preventing Iranian nukes. The official said there is no hard evidence that Iran specifically triggered the assault.

A U.S. intelligence official, who asked not to be named, said it is not clear exactly why Hezbollah chose that moment in time to execute such a provocative act. The official said it may have been an attempt to force Israel to exchange Israeli-held Hezbollah fighters for the two Israeli soldiers. The official declined to discuss Iran.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator is Ali Larijani, a hard-line former Revolutionary Guard leader who now serves as secretary of the country’s Supreme National Security Council.

Mr. Larijani met July 11 in Europe with Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign representative. Mr. Larijani rejected Western offers of inducements to end enrichment. A spokesman said Mr. Solana was “disappointed” in the talks.

The next day, Mr. Larijani appeared in Damascus on Syrian TV meeting with President Bashar Assad, another Hezbollah backer. His regime allows shipments of Iranian arms and rockets to pass through its territory into southern Lebanon.

The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah strategy does not appear to be working, administration officials say.

For one, the U.N. Security Council voted last Monday to express “serious concern” and said Iran had until Aug. 31 to stop enrichment or face sanctions.

Secondly, Bush officials say Hezbollah underestimated Israel’s response. Rather than a tit-for-tat retaliation, Israel immediately launched a full-scale war on Hezbollah. Using advanced U.S. strike aircraft and precision munitions, it has unleashed relentless round-the-clock attacks against Hezbollah’s command centers, homes, communications networks, Al Manar television station and arms caches. On the ground, the Israelis contend they have cleansed over 20 southern Lebanese villages of Hezbollah fighters.

The U.S. intelligence official said Hezbollah “miscalculated and clearly did not anticipate the events it provoked.”

In the end, Bush administration officials say Hezbollah will never be able to re-establish itself in southern Lebanon, where it had turned the mountainous terrain into a network of command centers, garrisons and arms caches from which to lob some of its 13,000 rockets into Israeli population centers.

Hezbollah has been on the U.S. target list since al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks. While not directly tied to the Sunni al Qaeda, the Shi’ite-dominated Hezbollah has attacked and killed Americans, vows to destroy Israel and advocates an Iranian-style theocracy established in Beirut.

Now, Israel is doing something Washington has wanted done for years.

“Hezbollah may be the ‘A-Team of Terrorists’ and maybe al Qaeda is actually the ‘B-Team.’ And they’re on the list, and their time will come,” then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in 2003. “There is no question about it. It’s all in good time. And we’re going to go after these problems just like a high school wrestler goes after a match. We’re going to take them down one at a time.”

Administration officials have said the Israeli Defense Forces is overstating the damage its attacks have inflicted on Hezbollah’s sizable arsenal. Still, they say, the militant group is being damaged.

“They have dealt Hezbollah some significant blows to date; but that said, they have a very large stockpile of rockets and formidable logistics operations, having been in the country for so long,” the U.S. intelligence official said.

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