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The Hezbollah Problem

Authors: Steven Simon, Lecturer, Dartmouth College, and Jonathan Stevenson, U.S. Naval War College
Issue #16, Spring 2010
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas


How to handle Iran may be the most pressing foreign-policy question of our time. The evolving consensus seems to be that in the face of a duplicitous and antagonistic Iranian leadership that refuses to engage seriously with the United States, containment is the least objectionable option. The containment view--notably expressed by James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh in Foreign Affairs--holds that Washington should adopt a broad array of energetic policies to blunt a potentially nuclear Iran's influence and ambitions. In particular, the United States should bolster nuclear and conventional deterrence and tailor it to Iranian threats; intensify non-proliferation measures and efforts to resolve conflicts that Tehran exploits; and mobilize an international network in support of “smart” sanctions.

The alternative is to consider a more ambitious policy of rollback. The term originated with those hard-liners who wanted to invade the Soviet Union in 1946-47 but acquired a more respectable cast in the 1980s as Reagan Administration hawks' label for more aggressive U.S. efforts to stem Soviet expansion, which helped advance the collapse of the Soviet Union. In modified form, rollback may be the better, if more challenging, option for dealing with Iran. The place to begin the campaign to roll back Iran should be Lebanon, where, apart from Iraq, Iran's provocations and influence are most stark and troublesome. But major powers cannot simply scold Iran--or Syria, its strategic partner--out of Lebanon with periodic demarches. Instead, they need to focus sharply and durably on demilitarizing Iran's most powerful and dangerous proxy in the region: the militant Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah. This means orchestrating an intensive Western re-engagement in Lebanon that induces Hezbollah to reassess its priorities and ultimately subordinate its objective of extinguishing the state of Israel to that of competing for political primacy in Lebanon.

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