General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), came to Lebanon immediately after the funeral of the Iranian general who was killed in the Kuneitra operation on January 18. Soleimani met in Beirut with Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and other senior Hizbullah commanders. He then visited the Mughniyeh family, which was in mourning at the home of Jihad Mughniyeh’s maternal grandfather who is also the father of Mustafa Badr Al Din, the commander of Hizbullah’s military wing who replaced Imad Mughniyeh. At midnight, Suleimani went to visit the fresh grave of Jihad Mughniyeh.
Suleimani did not merely lay wreaths on the grave, like dozens of distinguished Iranian guests who come to visit the grave of Jihad’s father, Imad Mughniyeh, since his assassination in February 2008. Instead, he sat down by Jihad’s grave, held a Koran, and read the Al-Fatiha sura for the ascent of his soul. A picture of Soleimani sitting at the grave was widely disseminated to highlight the special connection, which has become symbolic, between the Iranian commander responsible for the exporting of the Islamic Revolution and his favorite disciple in Lebanon.
Soleimani, however, had an objective beyond that of honoring the Mughniyeh family. He met with Nasrallah and his senior commanders to make sure that Hizbullah’s response to the Kuneitra operation would be of limited scope – even though that operation had killed a senior IRGC general and senior Hizbullah commanders. At present, Iran does not want a war in Lebanon, mainly out of fear that Hizbullah would have to use its strategic missile force that has been built in Lebanon with one aim, namely, to deter Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
No less important, according to Supreme Leader Khamenei’s assessment of the current situation, Iran is on the way to signing a nuclear agreement with the United States that is favorable from Iran’s standpoint. Hence, he ordered Soleimani to ensure that Hizbullah would not hand Israel any sort of pretext to stymie this agreement by using force in Lebanon. Soleimani’s visit to Beirut was thus intended to make certain that Hizbullah’s response would be restrained, precise, and of a kind that would not give Israel any reason to take military actions that would lead to war.
As far as Iran is concerned, the Lebanese theater must be maintained as a strategic asset, the first line of defense against Israel. At the same time, a new front in Syria, where “Hizbullah Syria” has been created, must be constructed as a continuation of the line of defense in Lebanon.
Hizbullah’s response, therefore, was limited and legitimate from Iran’s standpoint in terms of the military target that was chosen and the geographic location, which is internationally disputed. Yet, at the same time, Iran is now concentrating most of its own and Hizbullah’s intelligence efforts on harsh retaliation somewhere outside of the region. The aim is to strike Israeli or Jewish targets at an operationally feasible place and time. The commander of the IRGC, General Ali Jafari, hinted at this by saying “Israel should expect a powerful response anywhere in the world.”
Nasrallah, for his part, in his speech on January 30, the day of remembrance for the fallen in the Kuneitra operation, asserted that all of the existing rules of the game with Israel before the Kuneitra operation were no longer in existence. In mentioning the assassination of the second leader of Hizbullah, Abbas Musawi, he alluded to the price Israel paid with the 1992 bombing attack on the Israeli embassy in Argentina carried out with Iranian assistance, implying that this would be a model for the response.
Nasrallah thereby emphasized the unity of purpose between Iran and Hizbullah on the Golan, or as he put it in the speech:
“The mix of Lebanese and Iranian blood in the soil of Kuneitra represents the unity of our battle and destiny. This is the secret of the resistance and reflects the affiliation of the whole school of Jihad.”