In military parlance, a "spoiling attack" is when you see your enemy mobilizing to strike you, you hit him first to throw him off balance.
By responding more vigorously to the kidnapping of its soldiers and the rocket attacks on its cities than Hezbollah likely expected, Israel may have launched a spoiling attack on Iran.
On July 20, Iran said it would reply on August 22 to the Western package of incentives for ending its nuclear program. For Westerners, the only thing peculiar about this is the length of time Iran is taking to respond, since for us, the date August 22 has no special meaning.
But it may have more significance for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. August 22 corresponds to Rajab 27 on the Muslim calendar, the date this year when the festival of Lailat al Miraj will be celebrated. The festival commemorates the (alleged) ascension of the Prophet Muhammad into heaven from the al Aksa mosque in Jerusalem.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is a devotee of the Hojatieh sect of Shia Islam, which believes the return of the 12th Imam (the Mahdi), who disappeared as a child in 941, is imminent, and can be hastened by increasing global chaos.
Mr. Ahmadinejad has called frequently for the destruction of Israel, declaring in an April 14 speech "the Zionist regime is a rotten, dried tree that will be eliminated by one storm." Was he planning that storm for Aug. 22?
Doubters note that Aug. 22 also is the first day of the month of Mordad (the Persian calendar is older than and different from the Muslim calendar). Perhaps Mr. Ahmadinejad picked that date just to string the Europeans along for another month.
On the other hand, while he was the mayor of Tehran, Mr. Ahmadinejad reportedly ordered the refurbishment of a major boulevard because the Mahdi is to travel along it upon his return.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who shares Mr. Ahmadinejad's apocalyptic vision, said there is a "surprise" in store for Israel. This could be bluster, of which Mr. Nasrallah has plenty. But might he mean an attack with weapons of mass destruction?
There have been reports that just before the Iraq began, Saddam's more advanced chemical and biological weapons were taken to Syria and to the Hezbollah stronghold in the Bekaa Valley for safekeeping. We may find out shortly whether those reports were true.
Analysts say Iran is still years away from developing its own atomic bomb. But analysts overlook the possibility that North Korea which is thought to have about a dozen bombs might sell one or two to Iran. Iran and North Korea have done business before, and there were Iranians in Pyongyang July 4 when North Korea conducted its missile tests.
Thanks to what may from Mr. Ahmadinejad's perspective be the premature onset of major hostilities, Israel will be more vigilant, and Hezbollah less capable of perpetrating a surprise.
Though it is chiefly Iran that is pulling Hezbollah's strings, Syria holds the key to whether this conflict can end happily for Israel and the fledgling democracy in Lebanon. As long as Hezbollah is resupplied through Syria, it will remain a mortal danger to both.
The Bush administration and Sunni Arab governments (chiefly Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan) are trying to pry Syria out of its alliance with Iran. If Syria were to cut off resupply to Hezbollah, the terror group would die on the vine, and Iran would lose its beachhead in the heart of the Sunni Arab world.
The odds are remote that these diplomatic overtures will succeed. But Jim Robbins, a professor at the National Defense University, thinks the time is right:
"Bashar Assad should be offered the same deal as Muammar Khadaffi basically stop doing the things that annoy us, get rid of your WMD and missile programs, and you can be our friend."
But negotiations can succeed only if there are some really sharp sticks among the usual carrots in the diplomatic bundle. There is no chance of success if there is a premature cease fire, because that would relieve pressure on both Hezbollah and Syria, and Mr. Assad will do the right thing only if he thinks he has no other choice.
As the diplomatic minuet begins in earnest, the key question is whether Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his circle share Mr. Ahmadinejad's apocalyptic vision. They are Alawites, a Shia sect, but the regime has been secular in its orientation. They have been living comfortably, and may not be as eager as Mr. Ahmadinejad is to hasten the end of the world.
If Mr. Assad isn't a religious nut, he may be uncomfortable being allied with one.