On the next flight to Tehran?

TEL AVIV — One of the biggest fears for Israel's government and the families of the kidnapped soldiers is that soon they will be, or are already on their way to Iran.

There is strong logic behind this concern. Hezbollah is a major Iranian ally. It relies on Iran for political and military support. Therefore if Iran wanted to have the soldiers in its possession, it could exert significant and effective pressure on Hezbollah to hand them over.

At first glance, the logic that Iran would want to have the captured soldiers makes strong sense. The Iranian intelligence agency (known in Farsi by its acronym as VAVAK – Vezarate Ete'laat Va Amniyate Keshvar) has for years been trying to collect as much intelligence as possible on the Israeli armed forces. Having the Israeli soldiers in its possession could assist its plans to understand Israel's position on the northern border at the very least.

More importantly for Tehran, the abducted soldiers could be used as chips in Iran's poker game against the world over its nuclear programme. This will not be the first time that Iran has used hostages as bargaining chips to extract favourable decisions from the West.

In the 1980s, the Iranian government, through Hezbollah, used captured American citizens as bargaining chips in order to “convince” the US government to allow the sale of US made weapons to Iran's armed forces. This scandal later became known in the West as the Iran Contra affair. As far as many Iranian politicians and military officers were concerned, Iran's decision to capture the US citizens, and the trade them in for weapons was very wise. Simply because the US delivered weapons, especially the Anti- tank Tow missiles were instrumental is reducing Iraq's superiority on the battle field.

Later on, Iran, again though its relationship with Hezbollah, captured French citizens. It then used French hostages in Lebanon in order to force the French government to expel the Paris based Iranian opposition movement, the Mujahedeen Khalgh Organisation (MKO) from its soil.

Likely outcome
It is very unlikely that the soldiers will be sent to Iran immediately.

According to Yossi Melman, Ha'aretz expert on intelligence matters “there is no need to send the soldiers to Iran. The Iranian intelligence organisation can easily send interrogators to Lebanon, who can sit in during the interrogation sessions, or actively participate in them. This has been done before, and can easily be done again”.

Furthermore, if Hezbollah hands the soldiers to Iran, it will look like a complete Iranian puppet to the Lebanese people. This will damage Hezbollah's on going efforts to portray itself as a genuine Lebanese organisation.

The situation will become worst for Hezbollah, if Lebanon suffers from a heavy Israeli retaliation. That way, as well losing its prominence as a genuine Lebanese resistance organisation, Hezbollah will find it difficult to maintain its relations with Iran in the future. This is because people will see this operation as an Iranian affair, executed for the benefit of Iran's interests, at the expense of Lebanon's security and economy. After Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, Lebanese people are less willing to foot the bill for other country's interests.

Also, if Hezbollah hands the soldiers over so soon, in its future negotiations to exchange them, it will have to negotiate with Israel, as well as Iran. This will make this affair doubly difficult for Hezbollah. From experience, Hezbollah's leadership knows that despite their close friendship, Iranian and Hezbollah interests have not always been compatible. Therefore in case a settlement is reached with Israel which is favourable to Hezbollah, yet Iran disapproves of it, there is not much Hezbollah will be able to do, as the soldiers will not be in its possession.

In short, over the years, the Hezbollah leadership has become an expert in planning guerrilla operations, as well in negotiations skills. To negotiate, you need something in your possession. You also need to control your decision. That's why in the short term at least, it is far likelier that Hezbollah will keep the soldiers in Lebanon, where they best serve its interests..

Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-born Middle East Analyst and the Director or the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company, meepas.com. He has been quoted and interviewed by the BBC, Radio Holland International, Haaretz Newspaper and the Boston Globe as well as a number of other newspapers and Radio stations. For rights to quote this article please contact analysis@meepas.com.

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