Iranian leader Khamenei is the model individual for the Hizbullah movement in Lebanon. He has been Hizbullah’s source of religious and political authority since succeeding Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Two statements by Hizbullah leaders Hassan Nasrallah, the general secretary, and Hashem Safieddin, head of the organization’s Executive Council and Nasrallah’s designated successor, provide an authentic picture of the close link between the leader of Iran and his loyal followers in Lebanon.
Nasrallah and Safieddin very precisely describe Khamenei’s special status in Hizbullah as the one who has dictated the Shiite movement’s strategic steps in Lebanon at the crucial moments of its history there.
The total veneration of Khamenei highlights one of the important attributes of the Imam in the Shiite faith, which views him as an infallible figure who is clairvoyant and makes correct decisions. He is infallible even when all the information and circumstances seemingly point to the diametrically opposite decisions.
It must be emphasized these are not religio-legal decisions, where Khamenei’s prowess is well known and much more esteemed in Lebanon than in Iran, but strategic and political ones that indicate his total sway over Hizbullah’s decision-making process in Lebanon. Nasrallah was aware of this in his younger days, when he went to complete his studies in the religious seminaries of Qom and made efforts to introduce himself to Khamenei (see below). Hashem Safieddin, who, with Nasrallah’s blessing, is fortifying his status as Nasrallah’s designated successor, also knows it well.
On 6 June 2011 an extraordinary conference was held in Beirut. It dealt with the intellectual personality of the Iranian leader, Khamenei, and was called “Convention of Renovation and Jurisprudence of Imam Khamenei’s Intellect.” The conference was organized by the Iranian embassy in Beirut, and this is the first time it was convened outside of Iran. It comes as no surprise that of all the countries in the world, the first country chosen to host such a conference was Lebanon, where reverence for Ali Khamenei appears to be greater than in Iran itself.
Religious figures and intellectuals from all circles of the Islamic world took part in the conference. Iran was represented by former leader of the parliament, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, and the ambassador in Beirut, Ghadanfar Rokon Abadi. The conference’s honorary guest was Hizbullah leader Nasrallah who, as usual, spoke via a TV screen, and whose speech was published on the official Internet site of the Iranian leader.
Nasrallah’s lengthy speech sheds light on his special relations with Khamenei, to whom he first introduced himself in 1986. That was four years after Hizbullah was created by Iran; Nasrallah was twenty-six and had just begun his path in the Shiite movement in Lebanon. In 1988, with the conclusion of the bloody battles between Hizbullah and the Amal movement, which took the lives of more Shiites than any war with Israel, the young Nasrallah went for a year of study in the Qom seminaries to complete his religious education. Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the architect of Hizbullah who after serving as ambassador in Damascus was interior minister and deputy prime minister, brought Nasrallah to Khamenei, then president of Iran. Khamenei also held the “Lebanese portfolio” as part of his membership in the Tripartite Committee, which also included parliamentary chairman Hashemi Rafsanjani and head of the judicial authority Moussavi Ardabeli.
The Figure of Khamenei
In Nasrallah’s view, as reflected in his speech, Khamenei is an extraordinary leader in terms of faith, leadership, and knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh). He is aware of the problems and needs, and knows how to offer solutions that are consistent with principles. He is always abreast of the fine details and can offer the opinions of an expert.
Nasrallah notes that many in the Islamic world are ignorant about Khamenei, and hence he receives little admiration even in Iran itself. He has been besieged by enemies and his friends do not appreciate him as they should.
One’s responsibility, said Nasrallah, is to present this great Imam to the members of the Islamic umma so that they can benefit from his leadership and erudition in this world and the next; hence, the conference was of great importance.
In a meeting with Iranian members of the Basij militia who came to Lebanon, Hashem Safiedden said things in a similar spirit: “For us Ayatollah Khamenei is not a simple leader. He is our model for life, a symbol of steadfastness, and our master” (as quoted from the Iranian newspaper Kayhan on 31 May 2011 by Amir Taheri in Asharq Alawsat, 10 June 2011).
Khamenei’s Influence on Hizbullah
In his speech Nasrallah noted Khamenei’s enormous influence on Hizbullah since the beginning of the 1990s, after he succeeded Khomeini in 1989 as leader of Iran. The convening of the Madrid Conference in 1991, against the backdrop of the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the dramatic changes that came in its wake, presented the United States as the sole superpower pushing the Arabs toward a compromise with Israel. The general feeling in the region, Nasrallah said, was that the United States was in a position to impose such a compromise with Israel. Yet the Imam Khamenei, Nasrallah emphasized, had a different, contrasting outlook. Khamenei claimed that the Madrid Conference would not lead to any results and that the United States would not succeed to impose any sort of compromise. Twenty years later, Nasrallah observed, the participants of that conference in Madrid acknowledge that nothing was achieved there, the peace talks failed, and the last two decades have brought only disappointment, despair, and confusion as a result of that failed conference, showing that Khamenei correctly analyzed the regional and international situation, notwithstanding the overall mood in the region at that time.
In 1996, Nasrallah pointed out, Israeli-Syrian contacts were held, predicated on Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s willingness to withdraw to the 4 June 1967 lines. Here again, it appeared certain in the region that a compromise would be reached, the disputes had been resolved, and all that remained was to work out the details. Thus Hizbullah found itself confronting appeals to end its struggle against Israel. Hizbullah was told, as Nasrallah mentioned, that the efforts against Israel were futile and without benefit, and the movement was encouraged to abandon the path of (military) resistance against Israel precisely at the time that its anti-Israel struggle was intensifying. Hizbullah was advised, Nasrallah stressed, that there was no more need to make sacrifices in the fight against Israel. Some even claimed that Hizbullah, too, should opt for the path of compromise with Israel, alter its principles including those that were most fundamental to it as a resistance movement, and change its name, organizational structure, and political objectives.
Khamenei, Nasrallah underlined, claimed otherwise. The Iranian leader clearly asserted that the talks would not produce any results, and no compromise would be reached between Syria and Israel. Khamenei recommended that Hizbullah continue to intensify its jihad against Israel, ignore all the pointless theories about compromise, and strive for victory over Israel. Rabin was assassinated, Peres lost the election, and Netanyahu took office. Khamenei’s position remained unequivocal and consistent: the anti-Israeli jihad movement would prevail. His outlook was rooted in the religious faith that guided Hizbullah. After 1996, Khamenei maintained that Israel had sunk into a quagmire and could no longer conquer Lebanon. In his view, everything depends on acts of jihad by Hizbullah against Israel.
On the eve of the 1999 Israeli elections, Ehud Barak declared his desire to withdraw from Lebanon. Even after he was elected, said Nasrallah, Hizbullah did not believe he would carry out the withdrawal; they thought he would retract what he said before the elections. Meanwhile, the heads of Hizbullah met with Khamenei in Tehran. The Hizbullah leaders assessed that Israel would not pull out of Lebanon; Khamenei held the opposite view, saying Hizbullah’s victory was just around the corner and much closer than its leaders thought. Khamenei’s expectations ran counter to Hizbullah’s information and analysis of the situation; he instructed Nasrallah to gear up for victory and prepare the movement for the period after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. That, Nasrallah said, was why Hizbullah changed its position and readied itself for the Israeli retreat.
Israel’s decision to launch the Second Lebanon War was taken, according to Nasrallah, with international support including a number of Arab states. Its purpose was to destroy the resistance (i.e., Hizbullah’s military capacities). Under the conditions of Israel’s brutal use of force in Lebanon, said Nasrallah, to contemplate a victory for Hizbullah or even to speak of survival would have been insanity. Yet, during the bombing of the Dahiya neighborhood in southwestern Beirut, Nasrallah received a recorded announcement from Khamenei. This was a lengthy message that, if written out, would undoubtedly have taken up several pages. Its main points:
- This war was identical to the war that the Jews of Medina declared against the Prophet Muhammad, which was intended to annihilate Islam and the believers.
- They were to trust in God, and Khamenei promised them that they would be victorious in the war. The victory would be so great that they would become an invincible force.
In the circumstances prevailing at that time, certainly at the beginning of the war, who, Nasrallah wondered, could have predicted its outcome?
Hashem Safieddin (as quoted from Kayhan by Amir Taheri) underlined the fact that: “‘Without the direct, minute by minute, command and supervision of Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, Hizbullah would not have achieved its great victory against Zionism and America.’…Safieddin insisted that, from start to finish, the conflict had taken place under Khomeini’s ‘direct command and supervision.’”
Nasrallah went back to the period after September 11, when the United States had sown fear among the Muslims of the region. People then thought, Nasrallah remarked, that the United States was going to rule the region for another hundred or two hundred years. Others compared the situation to the Crusades. Nasrallah, for his part, went to meet with Khamenei in Iran and requested his guidance. The words of the Iranian leader stood in contrast to all the opinions heard at that time. Even in Iran, Nasrallah noted, there were official actors who told him Hizbullah would have to adjust to the new reality, hold a dialogue with the United States, and even reach a compromise with it. Khamenei, as mentioned, had a different view; he, in Nasrallah’s telling, said there was nothing to worry about: the United States had reached its pinnacle and from now on its status would decline. And indeed, Nasrallah concluded, after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the weakening of the United States had begun, marking the beginning of the end of America and its plans for the region.
As for Israel, Nasrallah reiterated the basic positions of Iran and Hizbullah: it was in decline, and the Zionist regime would be destroyed in the near future. Khamenei considers that a compromise with Israel will not achieve anything, and that the Palestinian struggle has fostered a new generation of fighting Palestinians who believe more than ever that they will return to their homeland. From all that has been learned, says Nasrallah, about Khamenei’s success in assessing past situations, and with the help of Allah, Israel is approaching the end of its existence.
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.