Iran’s Long Game in Lebanon
On 31 October 2016, Lebanon’s parliament elected veteran Christian leader General Michel Aoun as the country’s new President, ending a 29-month-long vacuum at the head of the state. For over two years prior the election, Aoun’s candidacy was rejected by the pro- Arab and western coalition including the Sunni Future movement and Druze Progressive Socialist Party because of the general’s privileged relations with Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. Aoun’s election was followed a month later by the formation of a cabinet under Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the head of the Future movement. Hariri is the son of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, a billionaire businessman who was assassinated in 2005 in Beirut. Several Hezbollah members are being tried in absentia by a U.N.-backed tribunal for killing Hariri. The deal between foes underlines the ascendancy of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement and the cooptation of its traditional Sunni and Christian political enemies.
This Insight addresses Iran’s infiltration of the Lebanese system, starting with a hijacking of the Lebanese resistance against Israeli occupation, followed by a consolidation of power over the Shiite community in Lebanon though the creation of a “resistance society”. Iran’s privileged relations with Syria guaranteed the preservation of Hezbollah’s military arsenal after the end of the Israeli occupation in 2000, and insured it played an important role in post war Lebanon. But it was without a doubt, the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri followed by the party’s entry in government that consecrated Iran’s expansion in Lebanon. The Hezbollah military coup in 2008 and Hezbollah involvement in Syria, despite broad Lebanese opposition, mark finally Iran’s positioning as the strongest regional player in Lebanese politics.
Iranian sponsorship has played a critical role in the creation Hezbollah since 1982. At the time, the Cairo agreement of 1969 sanctioned Palestinian militancy against Israel on the country’s southern front. One Shiite group, Amal, founded by Sayed Musa Sadr, was on the front line in the war against Israel until 1982. That year, the organization was split after its new leader, now speaker of the house, Nabih Berry, decided not to fight Israel’s advance on Lebanon, a decision contested by the Amal party’s Islamic branch, which defected as a result. The latter faction merged with other Shiite militants including the Iraqi Daawa party and was trained by Iranian IRCG forces which had been sent by Iran to stop the expansion of the Israeli Defense Force ( IDF). A common politico-military command structure was then forged, translating in the ‘Manifesto of the Nine’, known as Hezbollah’s founding act. It called for jihad against Israel, emphasized Islam as the movement’s doctrine and declared the signatories’ adherence to the Iranian wilayat al-faqih doctrine.
Iran became aware that to protect its military arm in Lebanon, it had to capture the hearts and minds of its proxy’s popular base. With Iran’s assistance, Hezbollah built an extensive network of social services within Lebanon. According to a report by MEPC, Hezbollah developed a highly organized system of health and social-service organizations comprised of the Social Unit, the Education Unit and the Islamic Health Unit. According to MEPC, the Social Unit is an umbrella for four organizations: the Jihad Construction Foundation (Jihad al Binaa) , the Martyrs’ Foundation, the Foundation for the Wounded and the Khomeini Support Committee. Jihad Construction Foundation in the early 2000s, delivered water to about 45 percent of the residents of Beirut’s southern suburb. Out of the 270 buildings in Dahieh that were completely destroyed in 2006, Jihad Construction Foundation rebuilt 239, while 19 more owners were provided with financial and technical support. In addition, the Imam Khomeini Assistance Committee also granted 130,000 scholarships and provided financial assistance to 135,000 needy families. It is believed that Iran’s earmarked Hezbollah budget amounts to 200 million USD a year. Hezbollah is today the largest mass party in the Middle East with dozens of thousands of members and hundreds of thousands of supporters.
Besides dividing power equally between Christians and Muslims, the 1989 Taef Agreement consecrated Syrian tutelage over the country. The Taef Agreement also allowed Hezbollah to preserve its military arsenal, as long as it fell within the Syrian-Iranian agenda. Hezbollah’s Shura council was divided as to whether to support the agreement, before bowing to Iran’s pressure, which pushed it to accept the deal. Additional Iranian pressure was exerted to convince Hezbollah’s leaders to participate in Lebanon’s first post-war election in 1992. With the organization officially included in the Lebanon political system, experts hailed the “libanization” of Hezbollah that was believed to be gradually moderating and more importantly, more locally focused, with Hezbollah’s eschewing broader regional agendas.
Yet, the end of 2000 occupation of Israel threatened the apparent perception of Hezbollah’s “libanization”. By then, the growing number of deaths and injuries among the Israeli military in Lebanon had created strong opposition to Israeli occupation of Lebanon, which led to the swift withdrawal of Israel from south Lebanon in May 2000. Israel’s unilateral decision deprived Syria and Iran of a strategic access to the Arab Israeli conflict, which forced them to engineer a new territorial dispute in the form of the contested Shebaa farms considered as Syrian by the United Nations.
Hezbollah’s clout in Lebanon and its continuous narrative for war against Israel conflicted with the objectives of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Hariri wanted to transform Lebanon into a regional economic and tourism hub, shielding it away from regional conflicts; a decision that clashed with the Iranian and Syrian agenda in regard of the Arab Israeli conflict. To consolidate its power over the country, Syria, backed by Hezbollah and pro-Syrian factions, moved to amend the Lebanese constitution to extend the term of, at the time, President Emile Lahoud. The amendment was dovetailed by UN Security Council Resolution 1559, ironically supported by current president Aoun, a Hezbollah foe at the time, calling for the withdrawal of all foreign armies from Lebanon, in a clear reference to Syrian occupation, and for disarming all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias including Hezbollah. “Rafic Hariri implicitly approved decision 1559 and was ecstatic when it went through” reported Hariri’s close advisor Hani Hamoud. A year later, on the 14 of February Hariri was killed in a massive bomb blast alongside 22 others. The Hariri assassination was followed by a string of assassinations targeting strong figures who opposed both Hezbollah and Syria namely: Christian MPs Gibran Tueni, Walid Eido and Antoine Ghanem; Army Director of Operations François al-Hajj, An-Nahar columnist Samir Kassir, and LBC reporter May Chidiac. The Hariri assassination, which was originally attributed to Syria and is now is believed to be the work of five members of Hezbollah, underlines a clear Syrian–Iranian convergence of interests aiming at safeguarding their leverage on the Israeli-Arab conflict and to put end to any internal Lebanese opposition.
The Hariri killing was followed by weeks of street protests dubbed the “Cedar Revolution,” which prompted the resignation of pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karame and his cabinet. Along with international pressure it forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. The loss of a strong backer capable of maintaining a local balance of power in favor of Hezbollah, pushed the militant group to expand their reach within political institutions by entering the Lebanese government in 2005, with the support of Iran.
In May 2008, after a government move to shut down Hezbollah’s telecommunication network and remove Beirut Airport’s security chief Wafic Shkeir over alleged ties to Hezbollah, the organization deployed armed militants in Beirut, besieging political figures and the government. At least 18 people were killed and 38 wounded in three days of battles between pro-future and PSP gunmen and fighters loyal to Hezbollah. The violence crowned 17 months of political deadlock between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the pro-western and Arab majority, which paralyzed the parliament and left a vacuum at the level of the presidency. The incidents triggered wide regional intervention which led to the Doha Agreement. This allowed for a new government providing 16 cabinet seats for the governing majority, 11 for the Hezbollah-led opposition and 3 to be nominated by the new president, which provided Hezbollah and its allies with the power to veto any decision. The Doha agreement heralded a significant shift of power in favor of the militant Shiite group, more importantly it introduced a constitutional precedent putting an end to the majority rule and replacing it by the consensual rule, requiring unanimous support to cabinet decisions.
Besides the targeting of political figures, mysterious killings of security officers took place in the post 2005 phase. All the killings involved security figures in charge of the Hariri investigation. On September 5, 2006, ISF Information Branch Officer Lt. Col. Samir Shehadeh’s convoy was hit by a remote-controlled bomb in the South Lebanon town of Rmeileh. In 2008, a powerful bomb killed an Internal Security Forces (ISF) investigator Captain Wissam Mahmoud Eid. Both Eid and Shehadeh were involved in the investigation of the Hariri assassination. In October 2012, the head of ISF intelligence Wissam Hassan was killed in a bomb blast in the Achrafieh neighborhood of Beirut. While Eid was the first to link the Hariri assassination to a team of Hezbollah members, Hassan had brought evidence in a high profile case connecting Syria to a series of terror attacks in Lebanon. Hassan had uncovered the collaboration of Lebanon’s former Information Minister, Michel Samaha with Syrian officials to plot bombings. Perpetrators of the three killings are yet to be discovered by the Lebanese state, but Syrian and Iranian interests appear to converge in these three cases. “In addition, Hezbollah has, in recent years, made sure its allies headed sensitive security positions and ministries, the latter being the defense and telecom ministries” says former Minister of Justice Ashraf Rifi, a staunch foe of the organization who also headed the Internal security forces (ISF) in an interview with this author. The former Justice Minister believes that Hezbollah extends its control through positioning its allies in decision-making roles across ministries. Hezbollah has also built its relation with the Lebanese army, on the premise of “The Lebanese people, the army and Hezbollah”. In these circumstances, the Army is a reflection of the Lebanese cabinet’s balance of power, where Hezbollah is a prominent member, giving Hezbollah significant influence over military appointments.
In 2013, the Lebanese government, including Hezbollah ministers, voted in favor of a policy of dissociation from regional conflicts. A few months later, reports of Hezbollah militants fighting in Syria reached Lebanon. Hezbollah’s leader Hassam Nasrallah underlined that Syria is “the backbone of the resistance, assuring that he will not let this bone break”. While Hezbollah and Iran applauded the wave of Arab revolutions, they viewed protests in Syria as direct threat to their resistance axis. The emergence of an opposing Sunni leadership in Syria would put an end to Iran’s expansion policy that aimed at linking Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. Under the guise of defending Shiite shrines and Lebanese villages on Syria’s border, Iran sent the first Hezbollah fighting force to Syria. Today the war in Syria has been framed as a war of the” resistance axis” against “terrorism”, one justified at the Lebanese level as a defensive war necessary to protect Hezbollah’s popular base against the takfiri, as the descendants of Ali did in the seventh century. This strategy has proved successful for Hezbollah, which has played an offense role on various frontlines, the latest of which was consecrated by the fall of Aleppo. As a result, Hezbollah has emerged from Syria as a powerful fighting force and more importantly as the regional military arm of Iran in the Levant.
The Syria war has underlined Hezbollah’s organic ties with Iran. Hezbollah has been Iran’s main fighting vanguard in Syria, leading operations during battle. Hezbollah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, has repeatedly boasted its allegiance to Iran, asserting: “he who rejects the authority of the Wilayat al-Faqih, rejects God and Ahlu’l-Bayt (the descendants of Imam Ali and his wife, Fatima, the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter) and is almost a polytheist.” The Syria war has confirmed Hezbollah’s regional role, with Hezbollah fighters admitting to this author that they had experts deployed alongside Iranians in other war theaters such as Iraq and Yemen. Prior to the Syria war, the 2005 to 2011 phase showed the limits of the Party’s openness policy toward the Lebanese system. As researcher Tony Badran highlighted, “this openness should no longer be understood as Hezbollah’s becoming integrated into the Lebanese political system like everyone else”. Rather, it is about integrating others into its project and consequently into Iran’s regional project. Thanks to Hezbollah’s military dominance on the Lebanese system as shown in the 2008 events, the resulting constitutional precedents allowing Hezbollah and its allies veto power over the cabinet’s decisions, and finally the cooptation for Christian and Sunni leaders in the most recent presidential elections and government formation, are factors that have allowed Iran to pull Lebanon further within its immediate orbit.
Iran will continue to expand its clout over the Land of the Cedar. One possible future implication of that dominance would be on the longer term for a renegotiation of the Taef Agreement, resulting in moving from the current bipolar system with power divided equally between Christians and Muslims to a tripartite system with power divided between Shiite, Sunnis and Christians.
 Nicholas Blanford, Warriors of God: Hezbollah’s Thirty Year Struggle against Israel (2011).