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Abu Dhabi CNN —  

The motorcycle zipped past our taxi as we headed to Tyre in southern Lebanon, veering off the road onto a dirt track leading up into the hills. The passenger on the back of the motorcycle had what appeared to be long tubes, concealed by cloth, strapped to his back.

I couldn’t stop and ask who they were or what those tubes were, but they were probably Hezbollah fighters moving rockets or other weapons to the south.

For weeks in July 2006 Israeli jets bombed Beirut’s southern suburbs, and other towns and villages in Lebanon’s south, trying to knock the Iranian-backed group out of action. They failed.

From our camera position south of Tyre, we watched daily as volley after volley of Katyusha rockets roared out of the banana groves toward Israel. Frequent Israeli air strikes didn’t appear to have any impact on the men launching the rockets.

Iran provided – and continues to provide – training, weaponry and equipment to Hezbollah.

As the US and Iran rush perilously close to a violent confrontation, the example of Hezbollah’s 34-day war with Israel comes to mind. A war between Iran and the US would pit the mighty American military machine against a much smaller but highly mobile array of Iranian forces and allies spread around the Middle East.

Regardless of the details behind Thursday’s attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, a confrontation between Iran and the United States became ever more likely after the Trump administration unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal last year, brought on by ultra-Iran hawks Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and John Bolton as National Security Advisor, and then began to tighten the screws on Iran with ever more punishing economic sanctions.

US policy toward Iran now is maximum sticks, no carrots.

An Iranian military truck carries missiles during the country's annual army day in April 2018 in Tehran.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
An Iranian military truck carries missiles during the country's annual army day in April 2018 in Tehran.

Iran is very different to Saddam’s Iraq

Unlike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, however, Iran has plenty of sticks at its disposal.

In 2003 Iraq was a shadow of its former self. I recall driving to Baghdad two years before the war and being stopped at an Iraqi Army checkpoint in the desert. The gaunt, weary troops didn’t ask for our papers. They asked for food and water. By 2003 Iraq was weak and isolated. In his hour of need, no one came to Saddam’s aid.

Iran is different. It has armed and trained Hezbollah, perhaps one of the most effective fighting forces in the Middle East. It has backed the Houthis in Yemen, who have managed to fight the US-backed and armed Saudi and Emirati armies to a standstill. An array of militias in Iraq receive support from Iran.

Plus, Tehran has had close ties with Syria going back to the 1979 revolution. Iranian troops and advisers helped, along with Russia and Hezbollah, to keep Bashar al-Assad in power.

Iran has plenty of IOUs it can call in.

Its friends have already made it clear they won’t stand idly by if Iran is attacked. On May 31, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah told a rally “a war on Iran will not remain within the boundaries of Iran. A war on Iran will inflame the entire region, and American forces and American interests will be destroyed.”

And at a time when the US might be looking for allies to join its push against Iran, it won’t find many eager volunteers. The Trump administration has alienated its European allies by dumping out of the Iran deal – which until last month Iran continued to abide by – and generally riding roughshod over their concerns.

The US might be able to count on Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates if push comes to shove, but that’s not going to come near to the firepower and political support George W. Bush was able to muster in his “coalition of the willing.” The Europeans, particularly the French and the Germans, are unlikely to back military action. The United Kingdom, consumed by Brexit, probably doesn’t have the appetite either.

Perhaps a few more carrots, and less sticks, are in order.