Concern over Hezbollah’s destructive role in the Middle East has sharply escalated during the past few days.
Citing Hezbollah’s creation of a pro-Iranian government within the Lebanese government, the GCC countries led by Saudi Arabia recently broke diplomatic ties with Beirut.
In the face of a much-anticipated showdown with the Iranian regime, Israel also kicked off a month-long series of exercises on the northern front to prepare for a possible confrontation with Hezbollah.
This occurred amid an unprecedented economic downturn and ongoing energy crisis in Lebanon, which the Iranian regime has exploited to showcase the terror group as a benefactor. Hezbollah illegally imports massive amounts of Iranian oil into the country, a move described by Prime Minister Mikati as a blatant breach of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
Hezbollah is the archetype and so far the most important and efficient of all Iranian proxy forces in the Middle East, and it demonstrates all the traits that eventually became the trademarks of Iran’s proxy networks in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond.
While embedding itself in the national government of Lebanon, Hezbollah receives its portfolio from Tehran and advances the agenda of the Islamist regime of Iran.
While pressing the regime’s interests at the expense of the West and its regional allies through widespread terrorism and proxy warfare, Hezbollah provides Tehran with just enough plausible deniability to still appear as a somewhat “respectable actor” on the world stage.
In order to understand how the Iranian Islamists created and perfected Hezbollah, we need to backtrack a few decades to examine some of the factors that contributed to the state of permanent crisis in Lebanon, which the revolutionary regime of Iran was quick to exploit for minting its proxy brand, and then methodically developed it into a modus operandi across the whole Middle East.
When Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943, political power was unevenly divided along confessional lines, with Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims receiving the lion’s share while the Shiite Muslims received no representation at all. In order to remedy the situation, the Qom Seminary in Iran, the paramount Shiite powerhouse at the time, in the early 1960s dispatched the highly regarded cleric Musa Sadr to Lebanon.
During the two decades that he was stationed in Lebanon, Sadr organized the Shiite population and turned it into a power to reckon with. He founded the Supreme Shia Council of Lebanon in 1967 and then the more well-known Amal Movement in 1974, which together constituted the Shiite powerbase in Lebanon. The emergence of this self-conscious Shiite bloc was perhaps one of the major factors that contributed to the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.
Throughout that dragged-out conflict, Amal took up arms and fought alongside the Palestinian exiles against the Christians and their Western allies and Israel. As a result, when in the early 1980s a freshly revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran entered the stage, it had little difficulty cannibalizing the radicalized elements of the Lebanese Shiite community to create the Frankenstein’s monster of Hezbollah.
While Amal, under the Sadr, maintained a rather independent character from Tehran, Hezbollah from day one was created to realize Ayatollah Khomeini’s totalitarian vision of government entitled “Velayat-e Faqih” (Guardianship of the Jurist). The leaders of Hezbollah, especially Hassan Nasrallah, have time and again emphasized that turning Lebanon into an Iranian-style “Islamic Republic” is their ultimate goal.
Since its inception, Hezbollah, which introduced the modern “suicide attack”, played the most violent role in the Civil War. In most likelihood, it was the terror group’s overwhelming suicide bombings targeting Westerners and other perceived enemies of the Iranian regime that eventually pushed all the parties engaged in the conflict to conclude that a “political settlement” was the best way out of the quagmire of Lebanon.
The Taif Agreement of 1989 became the beginning of the end of the Civil War. According to the terms of the agreement, all Lebanese militias were mandated to lay down their arms and disband. Only Hezbollah, under the pretext of defending the southern borders against Israel, was allowed to continue to bear arms. Hafiz al-Assad’s Baathist Syrian army was also allowed to maintain its presence as a peacekeeping force.
The most tangible outcome of the 15-year Civil War, apart from the expulsion of the PLO from Beirut, was the meteoric rise of the anti-Western and anti-Israeli bloc of power in the form of the pro-Iran/pro-Syria axis in Lebanon. When in 2000 Israel finally withdrew from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah found an opportunity to project its hegemony to the inner country.
But there where still those who resisted a complete takeover of Lebanon by Tehran and Damascus. When the popular Prime Minister Rafik Hariri tried to bring his country closer to the West and Saudi Arabia, the Iranian and Syrian regimes panicked and had Hezbollah assassinate him. Hariri’s assassination led to the Cedar Revolution of 2005, which ended in Bashar al-Assad’s withdrawing the Syrian army from Lebanon after three decades.
This in turn led to an exponential increase in Iranian influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah. The 2006 “Rocket War” that Hezbollah waged with Iranian-made missiles on Israel, and which Islamists still consider a great victory to this day, further boosted the prestige of the terror group. Since then, the Iranian proxy has steadily grown to become the supreme powerbroker in Lebanon.
Hezbollah soon took advantage of its tremendous political power by forestalling the formation of the government in Lebanon for four long years between 2014 and 2018. When a new cabinet formed in 2018, the parliament and the government had already been packed with the Shiite Hezbollah members and their Sunni and Christian allies and affiliates.
Since the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Hezbollah, at the behest of its taskmasters in Tehran, has aggressively expanded its campaign of terror across the greater Middle East, and it now poses a major threat to the Gulf-Lebanon relations and to the existence of the state of Israel. Most alarmingly, Hezbollah has turned into the foremost instrument of the Iranian regime to wage its ceaseless cold and recently not-too-cold war on Israel.
If the Biden administration wants a real deal with Iran, Washington’s top priority should be to neutralize Hezbollah and indeed all Iranian proxy forces in the Middle East. The West cannot otherwise persuade the Ayatollahs and their Revolutionary Guards to cease their nefarious activities, nuclear or conventional.
That is because as soon as the apocalyptic regime perceives the slightest effort towards constraining it, it can use Hezbollah and its other proxies to put the screws to the West and its closest allies in the region, completely cognizant of the fact that it can get away with it.
When there is neither leverage nor deterrence, there will be no compliance. The Islamist regime’s long arm must be twisted hard in the Middle East before the West can squeeze any meaningful concessions out of it in Vienna.
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