The Fantasy of Hizbullah Moderation

Vol. 10, No. 2    

  • John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s advisor for homeland security and counterterrorism, recently stated that the administration was looking for ways to build up “moderate elements” within Hizbullah. The fact that Hizbullah is part of the Iranian security apparatus did not seem to affect his analysis of the organization.
  • Immediately following the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Iran undertook a strategic decision to export the Islamic Revolution to the Arab and Islamic expanse. In Iran a special apparatus was formed to set up and support Islamic movements throughout the Islamic and Arab world that were prepared to adopt Iran’s model of Islamic rule. Lebanon was the first target selected, given its unsettled political condition and its large Shiite population which had maintained links with Iran for many years.
  • Hizbullah is not a national Lebanese movement, as has been frequently claimed in the West. Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and his men are not loyal to the president of Lebanon or to the government of Lebanon, but rather to Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Nasrallah’s deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem, admitted to the Iranian Arabic-language television station al-Qawathar in March 2007 that Hizbullah requires permission from Iran’s supreme leadership for its operations.
  • In the words of U.S. Defense Secretary William Gates, one should view Hizbullah’s military force – which extends far beyond the military force of any other political movement in the world, as well as beyond the force of many sovereign states – as the long arm of Iran.

During a public appearance  in Washington, John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s advisor for homeland  security and counterterrorism, revealed that the administration was  looking for ways to build up “moderate elements” within Hizbullah  which, he explained, had evolved from being a “purely terrorist organization”  to becoming a part of the Lebanese political system. That Hizbullah  was part of the Iranian security apparatus did not seem to bother Brennan  or affect his analysis of the organization’s motives.

It was not the first  time he had made this observation. Writing in July 2008, Brennan suggested  it was possible to increase Hizbullah’s “stake in Lebanon’s struggling  democratic process.” While acknowledging Iran’s material support for  Hizbullah, he clearly played down the Iranian role in the operational  decisions made by the organization’s leaders. For Brennan, Hizbullah  was an authentically Lebanese organization whose assimilation into Lebanon’s  political system should be encouraged by Washington.1 Moreover  he observed that as Hizbullah became a “vested player in the Lebanese  political system,” there had been “a marked reduction in terrorist  attacks carried out by the organization.” The key factor in any presentation  of Hizbullah as a potentially more moderate organization seeking to  integrate itself as another Lebanese political party was to downgrade  Iran’s role in Hizbullah decision-making.

Brennan was not alone  in not fully grasping Iran’s pivotal role for Hizbullah. A major 2009  study by the Rand Corporation on Iran suggested that Hizbullah was “taking  great pains to distance itself from Iranian patronage.”2

Even Israeli experts  and politicians at times have seen Hizbullah as primarily influenced  by the Lebanese internal scene. A variation on this theme is the notion  that Hizbullah owed its origins and growth over the years to the Israeli  presence on Lebanese soil. For example, in an interview marking a decade  since the Israeli retreat from Lebanon, Defense Minister Ehud Barak  stated: “Hizbullah was nonexistent when we went in; it was our stay  there that established it. Hizbullah got stronger not as a result of  our exit from Lebanon but as a result of our stay in Lebanon.”3  With this statement, Barak reinforced the erroneous argument purporting  that Hizbullah was established in response to the Israeli invasion of  Lebanon in 1982.

The Birth of Hizbullah

The historical facts  are totally different. Immediately following the establishment of the  Islamic Republic in 1979, Iran undertook a strategic decision to export  the Islamic Revolution to the Arab and Islamic expanse. For this purpose,  Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appointed Ayatollah Ali Montazeri to create  the “second revolution.” In Iran a special apparatus was formed,  staffed by Montazeri’s men, whose job was to set up and support Islamic  movements throughout the Islamic and Arab world that were prepared to  adopt Iran’s model of Islamic rule.4

Lebanon was the first  target selected, given its unsettled political condition and its large  Shiite population which had maintained links with Iran for many years.  During the 1970s Lebanon had become the crucible for the senior Iranian  revolutionary leadership. There its leaders took refuge and trained  with weapons. Khomeini’s tape-recorded messages were also produced  in Lebanon and then disseminated throughout Iran to spread the imam’s  doctrine.5

The Iranian drive to  take over the Amal movement, the dominant Shiite movement in Lebanon  prior to 1982, was unsuccessful. Amal refused to accept the principle  of Vali-e Faqih, a fundamental principle of the Islamic Republic  that mandated religious and political fealty to the Iranian leader.  Amal refused because it viewed itself first and foremost as a Lebanese  movement loyal to the Lebanese state. The Iranians sought a new Shiite  movement that would be loyal to Iran.

After Iran failed in  its attempt to take over Amal, Tehran made a decision to establish a  Shiite movement that would constitute an alternative to Amal and would  faithfully represent Iranian aspirations in Lebanon. The task of setting  up the new movement was entrusted to the Iranian ambassador in Damascus,  Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, prior to the First Lebanon War in summer 1982.6  Mohtashemi formed the “Lebanon Council” which included representatives  of pro-Iranian Shiite movements. He headed that body until the consolidation  of all the Lebanese Shiite movements that opposed and/or had split off  from Amal, and then founded Hizbullah.7

Iran exploited the  governmental vacuum that was created following the Lebanon War in 1982,  and sent to Lebanon a task force of some 1,500 Revolutionary Guard instructors  and fighters. Their job was to train and advise those who were the first  to join Hizbullah and assist in the formation of the new movement’s  institutions, whose nucleus had been established in Baalbek. Hizbullah’s  second leader, Abbas Moussawi, took part in the first Revolutionary  Guard course in Lebanon.

There is no doubt that  the First Lebanon War, as well as the entry of the multinational force  with the participation of American, British, French, and Italian military  contingents, served as a glaring target for Hizbullah and accelerated  its military empowerment. Furthermore, the prolonged Israeli occupation  in southern Lebanon (1982-2000) greased the wheels of Hizbullah’s Islamic  revolution and led to its military, political, and social build-up.  The Lebanese state failed to impose its governmental authority on the  Shiites in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and southern Beirut.  The monopoly on the use of force, a major constituent of state sovereignty,  was expropriated by Hizbullah from the Lebanese government.

The Hizbullah militia  under the authority of Hassan Nasrallah is inordinately more powerful  than the Lebanese army under the command of the Lebanese president,  and the system of civil institutions built by Hizbullah provides more  effective answers to the needs of the population than those supplied  by the Lebanese government. Indeed, in 2002 the monthly salary of a  worker in the Hizbullah civilian apparatus ranged between $600 and $800,  while the salary of Lebanese government workers did not exceed $500  a month.8

Hizbullah and the  Failure of the Lebanese State

Hizbullah is not a  national Lebanese movement, as has been frequently claimed in the West,  although it is represented in the Lebanese parliament by virtue of a  special dispensation granted by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei  in 1992.9 The movement has been represented in the Lebanese  government since 2005, following the departure of Syrian forces from  Lebanon. Nasrallah acts as the personal emissary of Khamenei in Lebanon.  He and his men are not loyal to the president of Lebanon or to the government  of Lebanon, but rather to the Iranian leader who is the Marja-e Taqlid  (source of emulation), the Vali-e Faqih who has the ultimate  say within the organization.

This loyalty is not  purely religious, and it is totally different from the authority exercised  by the pope in the Vatican. This involves political subordination in  every shape and form. Indeed, in March 2007, Nasrallah’s deputy, Sheikh  Naim Qassem, admitted to the Iranian Arabic-language television station al-Qawathar that Hizbullah requires permission from Iran’s supreme  leadership for its operations.10

For this reason, one  should view Hizbullah’s military force – which extends far beyond  the military force of any other political movement in the world, as  well as beyond the force of many sovereign states – as the long arm  of Iran, in the words of U.S. Defense Secretary William Gates. Since  2006, and the strengthening of the strategic pact between Iran and Syria  that intensified the military empowerment of Hizbullah, it appears that  the Syrian president as well regards Hizbullah as his long arm. The  growth of this Iranian and Syrian proxy on the soil of a failed Lebanese  state that has forfeited its sovereignty makes Hizbullah the real ruler  of Lebanon. It is just a matter of time for the process to mature into  a Hizbullah decision to translate its demographic power into political  currency and establish the Islamic Republic of Lebanon.

The Danger of Misreading  Hizbullah

Misreading Hizbullah  can lead to policy errors. In 2000 it was popularly thought that if  Israel unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon, then Hizbullah would  lose its motivation to keep fighting and would dissolve into a political  party that would disarm. Yet it was precisely after the Israeli pullout  when Hizbullah began its massive build-up of rockets, including long-range  Iranian rockets that were ultimately used in the 2006 Second Lebanon  War.

Some analysts have  also tried to identify moderate trends in Hizbullah by drawing a false  distinction between its “military wing” and its “political wing.”  This differentiation between different wings of Hizbullah was advanced  by the British government in early 2009. As Middle East expert Tony  Badran has astutely observed, this is a false distinction.11  As he notes, Nasrallah’s deputy, Naim Qassem, told the Los Angeles  Times last year that Hizbullah’s leadership controls both the  social welfare work of the organization as well as its jihadi  activities: “The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and  government work also leads jihad actions.” In other words,  Hizbullah is a highly centralized organization.12  Hizbullah’s own analysis of itself contradicts what Brennan has been  writing and stating in recent years.

Today, saying that  Hizbullah has moderate elements that have moved away from terrorism  can lead the political echelons in the West to ignore how Hizbullah  is serving its Iranian sponsors by directly threatening Israel’s civilian  population. On May 20, 2010, Hizbullah military sources boasted to the  Kuwaiti daily al-Rai that Israel will be bombarded with 15 tons  of explosives a day if a future war breaks out.13 Hizbullah  clearly does not care about the implications of its military build-up  for the people of Lebanon, because it only seeks to serve the interests  of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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Notes

1. John Brennan, “The Conundrum of  Iran: Strengthening Moderates without Acquiescing to Belligerence,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science,  618, July 2008.

2. Frederick Wherey  et al., Dangerous But Not Omnipotent: Exploring the Reach and Limitation  of Iranian Power in the Middle East (Rand, 2009). See also Steven  Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, “Disarming Hezbollah,” Foreign  Affairs website, January 11, 2010.

3. Yediot Ahronot [Hebrew],  May 7, 2010. Barak told Newsweek on July 18, 2006: “When we  entered Lebanon…there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed  rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there  that created Hezbollah.” Quoted by Augustus Richard Norton, Hezbollah:  A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p.  33.

4. Shimon Shapira, Hizbullah between  Iran and Lebanon (Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 2000), p. 90.

5. For information about the Iranians who operated  in Lebanon, see the first chapter in the important compendium, H.E.  Chehabi, ed., Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon in the Last 500  Years (Oxford: Centre for Lebanese Studies and I.B.Tauris, 2006).

6. Manal Lutfi, “Syria: Between Tehran  and Hizbullah,” Asharq al-Awsat, June 16, 2008.

7. Shapira, op. cit., pp. 134-139.

8. Dima Danawi, Hizbullah’s Pulse:  Into the Dilemma of the al-Shahid and Jihad al-Bina Foundations  (Beirut: 2002), p. 50, n. 30.

9. Naim Qassem, Hizbullah:  The Story from Within (London: Saqi, 2005), p. 191.

10. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/pdf/hezbollah_e0407.pdf.

11. Tony Badran, “Hezbollah is Not  the IRA,” Now Lebanon, February 2, 2010.

12. This point is made in Michael Young,  “A Foolish Quest in Hezbollahland,” Now Lebanon, May 21,  2010.

13. “Hizbullah Sources: Israel Will  Be Bombarded with 15 Tons of Explosives a Day in Case of War,” Naharnet, May 20, 2010, http://www.naharnet.com/domino/tn/NewsDesk.nsf/getstory?openform & C57030D6D391B08DC2257727004D2935.

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Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr.  Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center  for Public Affairs.

About Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira

Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.