I may be late getting to this analysis, though I haven’t seen it anywhere else.

The big question–I’ve heard it from friends and family, on TV, sluicing throught the tubes of the internets–is why did Hezbollah choose to attack Israel now? By which, people are actually asking, why did Iran choose to attack Israel now? Because the whole world knows that Iran pulls the strings that make Hezbollah move.

On the surface the timing of the attack seems illogical–Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons yet, but if things continue on their present course, will have them within 3 to 5 years and could then command the heights among its non-nuclear neighbors. Israel has done everything the so-called international community wanted it to do, pulling out of Lebanon in 2000 and out of the Palestinian territories last year, and thus had earned some sympathy from the world. It should have had that sympathy all along, but never mind that. Patience, though, would be in Iran’s favor. Israel can’t hold the world’s sympathy for very long–there is too much reflexive hatred for it worldwide. In a few short years Iran could put itself into a position to destroy Israel before she could respond. If Iran thinks it has that time, a patient strategy would make sense.

But this story (h/t Captain’s Quarters) hints at an answer. In it, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah claims that his group is now the defacto government of Lebanon. Which means, at least in his thinking, Hezbollah has replaced a democratically-elected government that was hostile to Syria and Iran. And given the relative strengths of Hezbollah and the Lebanese army, he’s probably more right than wrong at this point.

Think back to the Cedar Revolution last year. Sparked by the Syrian assassination of Rafik Hariri, it was a defeat for Syria and by extension Iran, and a victory for the US program of democratizing the Middle East. It had turned many Lebanese including prominent political figures like Walid Jumblatt against the Syrians and toward the US and even its Iraq policies. Seen from Tehran and Damascus, the Cedar Revolution was a major defeat, and one that could not be allowed to stand unchallenged.

The democratization program is a dagger at the throat of the mullahs. It is the greatest single threat to their power. As we’ve seen in the Palestinian Authority, democratization doesn’t necessarily mean Arab Thomas Jeffersons will take power. It probably does mean, though, the end of the mullahs’ rule once it reaches Iran. Therefore to the mullahs, it’s an unacceptable threat no matter who ends up replacing them.

The Iranians have been doing everything short of outright invasion to destabilize our efforts in Iraq, the centerpiece of the democratization effort. Iraq’s security forces and army get a little stronger everyday, which means Iraq inches closer to self-sufficiency (in spite of the daily terrorist attacks and whispers of civil war), which means every day brings real democracy (a real challenge to their power) a little bit closer to the mullahs’ frontier. From their point of view, anyway.

Israel is always a convenient target to attack for a Muslim power that wants to fracture coalitions or destabilize the region. We saw that in the first Gulf War, when Saddam tried to pull Israel into the war by lobbing SCUDs at Tel Aviv. Pulling Israel in would have fractured the Coalition, peeling off the strong Arab contingent. The effort failed, but from Saddam’s point of view it was a shot he had to take. There was no way he could possibly defeat the huge force then arrayed against him, so he had to divide it against itself.

Fast forward to today, and attacking Israel now may be the shot the mullahs have to take, before Iraq is self-sufficient and before democracy takes root in Lebanon and spreads further. Using Lebanon as a forward base makes sense from a logistics point of view and from a political one. The Lebanese government, an infant democracy, is not yet strong enough to resist Hezbollah (assuming it even wants to) and isn’t fully rid of Syrian influence. Destabilizing it makes sense from both an Iranian and Syrian point of view–as a relatively cosmopolitan if weak democracy, its existence is a threat. Handing it to Hezbollah by inflaming rage against Israel and highlighting the impotence of Lebanon’s democratic government hands Iran a little piece of empire right on Israel’s doorstep, and weakens nascent faith in democracy. And if it succeeds, Israel is weakened and America takes a proxy defeat. Seen this way, Hezbollah’s rocket strikes opened up an Iranian/Syrian counterattack against the US and its broad plans to re-shape the Middle East.

If I’m right about this, Israel can’t settle for weaking Hezbollah. Israel has to degrade Hezbollah to the point that it’s no longer an effective tool for the Iranians, and so that it no longer holds Lebanon as Iran’s vassal state. That’s a tall order: Hezbollah is dug in and most likely getting resupplied by Tehran and Damascus even now. Air strikes and incursions into southern Lebanon may not be enough to blunt this ideological bulge battle.

Update: According to MENewsline, Iran trained Hezbollah for six months prior to the July 12 attack that sparked the war. Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the UN, says the Hez rocket offensive is part of Iran’s war with the West. Pat Buchanan would say that that’s Israel’s way of trying to get us deeper into the war on its side, but then again Pitchfork Pat probably won’t acknowledge that Hezbollah has attacked and killed Americans over and over again. Which it has.

(h/t Chris)