The Biden Administration is Poised to Hand Hezbollah a Win in Vienna | Opinion

The Biden administration is on the verge of announcing a new nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite an eleventh-hour delay caused by Russian maneuvering, the agreement is reportedly ready. As part of that deal, the administration presumably will lift sanctions on a host of Iranian banks and companies involved in terrorism, even removing the the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the foreign terrorist organization list, releasing billions of dollars to the clerical regime that will finance its regional ambitions from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. In other words, the president and his team are planting a bomb in the Middle East and lighting the fuse.

A primary beneficiary of the deal's impending windfall will be Iran's most potent export: Hezbollah, the Lebanese legion of the IRGC. The terrorist group knows what's coming its way, because it has seen this play before. Back in 2015, on the eve of the first Iran deal, the group's leader Hassan Nasrallah gloated: "If Iran gets back this money, what will it do with it? A rich and strong Iran will be able to stand by its allies and friends...more than in any time in the past."

That is indeed what happened last time, and no doubt it will happen now, with horrible results. As the cash that will fill Iranian coffers trickles down to Hezbollah, the group will be able to further advance its arms buildup, especially in the production of precision-guided munitions (PGM) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). It was no coincidence that, as the trajectory of the talks in Vienna became obvious, Nasrallah highlighted in a speech his group's plan to enhance existing PGM and UAV capabilities.

Israel is watching these proceedings closely. Hezbollah's growing PGM capabilities are a primary threat to Israeli security. It's bad enough to have thousands of "dumb" rockets raining in randomly on civilian areas. It's another threat altogether if the IRGC unit on your border were able to hit strategic targets with precision. UAVs pose a complementary threat, as evident from how the Iranians deployed them against strategic targets and energy installations in Arab Gulf states. Hezbollah itself launched two drones into Israel the day after Nasrallah's boastful speech.

Given the Biden administration's determination to seal a deal with Iran, and thereby reaffirm former president Obama's legacy, Israel's choices have been clear for a while now—and they're not good. The administration's deal, negotiated in partnership with Iran's Russian patrons, reportedly guarantees Iran will become a threshold nuclear state. This offer is intended to function as a Sword of Damocles over the heads of those who oppose the administration's deal at home and abroad. Israel has been vocal that it is not bound by the new deal, and that it will take any action it deems necessary to prevent a nuclear Iran.

If Israel takes action against Iran's nuclear infrastructure, an Iranian response likely will come through Hezbollah, potentially sparking a larger conflagration. Other scenarios ensuing from the deal likewise raise the real possibility of war on Israel's northern border. Increased transfer of strategic weapons from Iran to Lebanon, and accelerated local production of PGMs and UAVs, could quickly cross Israeli red lines. This buildup of Hezbollah capabilities is in part designed to protect Iran's nuclear infrastructure by deterring Israel. Team Biden, by paving Iran's path to a nuclear weapon, has dramatically raised the likelihood of conflict. More than ever, Israel cannot afford to let Hezbollah's buildup in Lebanon grow to the level of a strategic threat.

Hezbollah fighters
Fighters of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah take part in a ceremony commemorating the memory of its fallen leaders, in the Ghobeiry neighborhood of southern Beirut on February 15, 2022. ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images

In Lebanon, too, Iran can count the Biden administration as an ally. Over the last two years, following Lebanon's 2019 financial meltdown, Washington has spent hundreds of millions of dollars stabilizing the Hezbollah-run order in Beirut. As part of this policy, the administration has been trying to resolve a maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon to open the door for European and Russian companies to begin energy exploration in Lebanese waters. Biden administration officials have even spoken about having U.S. companies invest as well.

The more the U.S. invests in Lebanon and treats it like an American protectorate, the more loath it will be to see Israel act against Hezbollah there. Israel would do well to disentangle itself from the administration's initiatives in Lebanon.

As it considers all its options, made narrower and more urgent by the Biden team's new deal, Israel will also need to walk a tightrope with Russia—the U.S. administration's preferred partner in brokering the deal. Russia controls the airspace to Israel's north ever since it entered Syria in 2015, a consequence of Barack Obama's deal with Iran that year. Furthermore, the deal might include the removal or non-enforcement of U.S. sanctions aimed at preventing Russia from selling arms to Iran—which, under the 2015 deal, was to be allowed by October 2020, but which then-president Donald Trump blocked with an executive order just before the expiration of the arms embargo.

During Russia's war in Ukraine, Israel has had to maneuver very delicately to avoid antagonizing Moscow. Israel pointedly refused to go out too far against the Russians, and as a result has been attacked by administration surrogates in the media. Heightened Israeli-Russian tensions, the Israeli government understood, could constrain Jerusalem's options for action against Iran—unquestionably a Biden administration preference. Israel's leadership has wisely avoided this trap.

Still, the road ahead for Israel is littered with landmines. The Biden administration's Iran deal, the second act of Obama's catastrophic turn toward Iran, presents Jerusalem with a terrible choice: act alone or live under the threat of a nuclear Iran and its Hezbollah army, operating under a nuclear umbrella.

In other words, the Biden administration has sped up the countdown to a regional explosion.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Lebanon, Hezbollah, Syria and the geopolitics of the Levant.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.