Lebanon-based Hezbollah is a transnational Shiite Islamist group founded by Iran in 1982, following the ideology of absolute Wilayat al-Faqih, as expounded by Tehran’s late Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini. Since its inception, Hezbollah has engaged in terrorist activities, targeting its own and Iran’s enemies, both in Lebanon and abroad. Its activities have earned the organization and many of its members terror designations by the United States Departments of State and Treasury, as well as by other countries.
The group runs a vast social services network – including hospitals, schools, vocational institutions, and charities -- in predominantly Shiite areas of Lebanon, which has earned it the gratitude and support of a community traditionally neglected by the Lebanese state. Through its “Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc,” Hezbollah also holds parliamentary and ministerial representation in Lebanon’s government.
Wilayat al-Faqih and the 1985 Open Letter: Hezbollah’s Khomeinist Doctrine
Hezbollah’s ideology is modeled on the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Mosavi Khomeini – the founder of the Islamic Republic and its first Supreme Leader – regarding
In the early 1990s, Hezbollah began a process to update the Open Letter, which culminated in the release of the 2009 Political Document. Throughout, however, Hezbollah’s leadership emphasized the permanence of the Letter and its principles, particularly adherence to Wilayat al-Faqih. In a 1994 interview, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said the update would “account for the changes…that took place in previous years,” but would not constitute any
When Nasrallah finally unveiled the Political Document in 2009, there was no mention of fealty to Iran or Wilayat al-Faqih, unlike in the Open Letter. However, Nasrallah dispelled the notion that Hezbollah had moved away from its earlier ideological orientation in the subsequent “Question and Answer” session. Reiterating what the party had been saying in the years between 1985 and 2009, Nasrallah said the changes in the new document did not affect the group’s “creed, ideology or thought” – particularly its adherence to Wilayat al-Faqih – which he said is “
Military vs. Political Wing?
Several countries and transnational bodies distinguish between the so-called military and political wings of Hezbollah – proscribing only the former. Yet the distinction between these two branches of the same organization is entirely artificial, and is rejected
“In Lebanon there is one Hezbollah, named Hezbollah. We don’t have a military wing and a political wing.”Naim Qassem
Nasrallah’s deputy Naim Qassem has likewise rejected the military vs. political distinction as a “concoction,” stressing in October 2012 the unity of Hezbollah. Qassem said that, “in Lebanon there is one Hezbollah, named Hezbollah. We don’t have a military wing and a political wing. We don’t have Hezbollah and the Party of Resistance, because Hezbollah is a political party, a resistance party, and the party of striving in the path of God Almighty and service of the human being. This, in short, is Hezbollah.” He added that all of Hezbollah’s resources, “including leadership, members, and different capabilities, is in the service of the resistance and supporting the resistance, and we have nothing but resistance as our priority – from the leadership of Hezbollah
The Party of God’s leaders are not grandstanding. A cursory view of Hezbollah’s organizational structure demonstrates that the group’s political and military branches are indeed symbiotic and mutually reinforcing. For example, the Islamic Resistance Support Association (IRSA) is Hezbollah’s official fundraising branch. It is controlled by the Executive, and not the Jihadi, Council. Yet, as its name suggests, all of its funds and activities go towards supporting, arming and supplying Hezbollah’s military activities. The same applies to the Mahdi Scouts, which acts as a gateway to membership in the ranks of the group’s fighters, and to Hezbollah’s vast charity and social services network, which aims to
Hezbollah in Service of Iran
Iran exploited the chaos of Lebanon’s Civil War and the subsequent 1982 Israeli invasion to catalyze the rise of Hezbollah. Iran created mutinies within the Amal Party – a nationalist Lebanese Shiite party founded by Imam Musa al-Sadr – splitting off a faction (known as Islamic Amal) that would later become
In line with Khomeini’s imperative to export the Islamic Revolution, Iran viewed the rise of Hezbollah as an opportunity to extend its influence to
Iran’s investment quickly began paying off. Since its inception, Hezbollah has operated as the IRGC’s spearhead far beyond Lebanon’s borders in order to protect Tehran’s interests. In the 1980s, it targeted Shah regime officials in Europe, and attacked France for its
Hezbollah has also incubated Iranian proxies throughout the region. At Tehran’s behest, the group created Unit 3800 in 2003 to train and assist Iraqi Shiite militias fighting against US and multinational forces. Using the techniques they learned from Hezbollah, these militias – like Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Kataeb Hezbollah (KHA) in Iraq –
Since 2011, Hezbollah also spearheaded the effort to defend Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime, whose downfall would pose a strategic threat to Tehran, not least of all by severing its land-link to Lebanon. In addition to playing a critical role in battles vital to the regime’s survival – particularly the
Hezbollah’s advisers have also travelled to Yemen, to aid and train Houthi rebels in their fight against neighboring Saudi Arabia. The Zaydi Shiite Houthis are not a proper Iranian proxy, and they neither share Hezbollah’s religious nor Wilayat al-Faqih orientation. However, Hezbollah is aiding the Houthis because they are fighting Tehran’s rival Riyadh, and control of Red Sea shipping and the Bab al-Mandeb straits would
Iran’s Support for Hezbollah
Hezbollah makes no secret of receiving financial support from Iran. In a mid-2016 speech, Nasrallah boasted that his group’s “budget, salaries, expenses, and its good, drink and weapons and missiles [are funded by] the Islamic Republic of Iran. As long as there is money in Iran, then we’ll have money.” It is difficult to know how much Iran provides Hezbollah annually, with estimates ranging from $100 to $200 million per year in cash outlays alone according to U.S. intelligence estimates, to $800 million annually according to IDF Chief of Staff
“[Hezbollah’s] budget, salaries, expenses, and its good, drink and weapons and missiles [are funded by] the Islamic Republic of Iran. As long as there is money in Iran, then we’ll have money.”Hassan Nasrallah
Iran also provides Hezbollah with weapons – everything from small arms and Katyusha rockets, to more advanced platforms, including anti-tank rockets, longer-range surface-to-surface missiles, and
Tehran also trains Hezbollah’s fighters and commanders at IRGC-run camps in both
Hezbollah’s “Resistance Economy”
“In order to ensure its financial security, [Hezbollah] has established its own shadow economy in Lebanon that is semi-impervious to U.S. financial sanctions.”
Hezbollah is by no means solely dependent on Iran for its finances. In order to ensure its financial security, the group has established its own shadow economy in Lebanon that is semi-impervious to U.S. financial sanctions. Some of this is done through the innocuous cover of legitimate businesses and religious and social charities, as well as through its Islamic Resistance Support Association (IRSA). The IRSA is Hezbollah’s official domestic and international fundraising arm for its military activities – but is controlled by its so-called “political wing.” Funds go toward everything from purchasing military gear for Hezbollah fighters, to weapons platforms, and providing for the
Hezbollah in Lebanon
The developing narrative in certain policy circles and among Israeli officials is that Lebanon and Hezbollah are now the same, and any distinction between them is purely artificial. However, this is a vastly oversimplified view of the complexity of the relationship between Hezbollah and Lebanon.
When Hezbollah first emerged in 1982, it completely rejected the legitimacy of the Lebanese state, and considered it an enemy. Its 1985 Open Letter called the secular republic the “product of an arrogance so unjust that no reform or modification can remedy it.” The group thus refused any cooperation with the Lebanese state that did not cause “fundamental changes in the system’s roots,” replacing it with an Islamic republic on the Iranian model. Nasrallah explained in a speech during the late 1980s that the group’s goal was “to make Lebanon not a single Islamic republic, but part of the large Islamic republic,”
As Lebanon’s Civil War waned, Hezbollah realized this confrontational approach would leave it isolated domestically and at odds with the new dominant power in Lebanon: Syria. It therefore opted to work from within the confines of the existing Lebanese system to achieve its unaltered goals. This principled flexibility arose out of Hezbollah’s realization that working from within the system would better serve the attainment of its purposes in Lebanon’s new political environment. Lebanese society and state were an impediment to Hezbollah’s goals, easier overcome by circumvention and appropriation , rather than through a direct challenge.
For starters, it publicly dropped its rejection of the Lebanese republic, instead running in the 1992 parliamentary elections, Lebanon’s first since 1972,
Hezbollah also downplayed its calls for an Islamic government, but did not abandon it entirely. As far back as the Open Letter, Hezbollah was cognizant of the limits of its own power and did not call for an Islamic Lebanon to be established by force of arms. Instead, it called on the vast majority of Lebanese to willingly and overwhelmingly adopt its theocratic system, modeled on that of Iran. According to Hassan Nasrallah and Naim Qassem, this grassroots approach to creating an Islamic Lebanon remains the party’s approach
Another method Hezbollah used was growing its strength within certain areas of Lebanese consensus. Thus, Hezbollah rebranded itself from the “Islamic Revolution in Lebanon” to “Islamic Resistance in Lebanon,” and focused its military activities on ending Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon.
As a result, the Lebanese Army – once Hezbollah’s enemy that killed
Unanimous Lebanese opposition to Israel’s occupation afforded Hezbollah the perfect opportunity to grow its military experience, strength, and arsenal under the guise of liberating south Lebanon. The Lebanese acquiesced to Hezbollah retaining its arms outside of the state’s authority for as long as that occupation lasted. However, by the time Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000, the group had simply become too powerful to disarm or control.
Hezbollah needed what it calls a “host environment,” [bee’a hadina] to transform from a mere guerilla group into a more permanent fixture of Lebanese society. Therefore, instead of confronting the Amal Party – which sought to empower Shiites as loyal Lebanese citizens – it chose to coopt its rival-cum¬-ally by stressing their mutual concern for the well-being of Lebanese Shiites. However, with Iranian and Syrian support, it quickly overshadowed and neutralized the group.
Hezbollah, now virtually unrivaled, set about filling the state’s void and neglect in caring for Lebanese Shiites, establishing schools, hospitals and other social institutions for the once-impoverished community. Large parts of the Shiite community repaid this debt by becoming the group’s political constituency, providing it with governmental representation and influence. Equally importantly, they also became Hezbollah’s foot soldiers.
Hezbollah draws support for its activities by emphasizing the state’s inherent weakness and inefficiency, so that the Lebanese will turn to it instead of the government for their needs. For example, its parliamentary head Mohammad Raad noted that the authorities incapable of resolving Lebanon’s garbage crisis could not be trusted to make
However, Hezbollah and Lebanon still have not become one indistinguishable entity. Proof of this is that the group has never hesitated to harm Lebanon whenever its own interests, or that of Iran, are jeopardized.
Hezbollah has been implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who opposed Damascus’ hegemony over Beirut, which would have weakened Hezbollah’s own position and thus Iranian interests. The Second Lebanon War with Israel – which devastated Lebanon and its civilians – is believed to have been timed by Hezbollah to distract attention from Iran’s
Hezbollah’s “Foreign Policy”
Hezbollah’s choice of enemies and allies is dictated by Iranian, rather than Lebanese, enmities and interests. With the exception of Israel, most of Hezbollah’s current or past enemies – including the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia – are Beirut’s partners and allies. By contrast, Hezbollah’s allies include China, Russia and Syria – the latter having militarily occupied Lebanon for 35 years and even violently repressed the group
Hezbollah is ultimately linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is perhaps its most successful creation. It will continue to exist so long as the Khomeinist regime continues to rule in Tehran. In the meantime, Hezbollah will continue to spearhead Iran’s asipirations for regional domination as it has for the past three decades of its existence.
Notions of Hezbollah’s “Lebanonization,” – i.e. a process of moderation transforming the Party of God into a political party owning ultimate loyalty to Lebanon – should be discounted. Neither should its active participation in Lebanon’s politics be taken as an indication that it has accepted the Lebanese electoral system’s legitimacy. As the group has indicated repeatedly, governmental participation is a means to the goal of protecting its weapons. The organization will continue to act pragmatically in this and other ways, but only to avoid conflict or challenges that could hinder or delay the implementation of Iran’s orders and interests. Nestling itself in areas of Lebanese consensus, Hezbollah will continue to try and grow its political, military, and social power.
Despite styling itself the “defender of Lebanon,” Hezbollah will continue to act from within the Lebanese government to both obstruct and delegitimize the Lebanese republic, and to protect itself against detrimental government initiatives. Meanwhile, the group will continue to expand its already-impressive array of social services, which act as an invitation to its model of government for Shiite and non-Shiite Lebanese alike. Unless this process it stopped, Hezbollah will sap Lebanon’s vitality, gradually cementing the country’s role as a forward base for Iran on the Mediterranean.
If Hezbollah is allowed to achieve its goal of subsuming Lebanon – either by the West abandoning Beirut, or by allowing the group’s gradual expansion to continue unabated – the country will become a genuine regional geo-strategic threat. Bordering both Israel and the Mediterranean, Hezbollah will then be able to project Iranian-inspired terrorism against the United States’ allies and interests in the region with impunity.