Lebanon is ripe with tension these days. With the planned visit of Iranian president Ahmadinejad and the UN's tribunal expected to implicate Hezbollah in the murder of former Prime Minister Hariri, the fractioned state of Lebanon is very tense. With these events in the background, Giyus.org sat down for a fascinating discussion with Dr. Omri Nir, an expert on Hezbollah and Lebanese politics. Dr. Nir is a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew Universtiy and Ben Gurion University.
Giyus.org: How would you describe Hezbollah's relations with Iran and Syria?
Dr. Nir: Let's start with some historic background. Hezbollah was created by Iran in 1982 to export the Islamic revolution to Lebanon. Why Lebanon? Iraq, which was the obvious choice, was off limits since Iran and Iraq were at war. In Lebanon, the Shia is the largest minority group, so Iran created Hezbollah there. From the start Hezbollah had a clear strategic goal of turning Lebanon into an Islamic regime like Iran. Hezbollah's charter from 1985 even includes a full chapter on how the Islamic state would treat the Christians which are a large minority group in Lebanon.
At the end of the civil war in Lebanon in 1990, Hezbollah remained the only armed Lebanese militia. Syria, which was the landlord in Lebanon these days, agreed to allow Hezbollah to keep its arms and in return Hezbollah agreed to help Syria keep its control of Lebanon and to fight the IDF in South Lebanon. Yet, despite being the largest minority group and the strongest military wise, the Shia remained deprived of political rights and social benefits, creating a growth opportunity for Hezbollah.
So this complicated triangle of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran has a delicate balance in which Iran finance Hezbollah and impacts strategic directions and Syria has allowed Hezbollah to grow in strength.
Giyus.org: Is Hezbollah a "puppet organization" serving as Iran's front with Israel?
Dr. Nir: Iran is the main financer of Hezbollah – so do they call the shots? It appears they set the directions but are less involved on a day to day basis. Hezbollah has a general secretary in Lebanon which controls the daily agenda of the movement. In November 2009, when Hezbollah came out with a new charter, the Iranian religious authority, al-Wali Faqih, who in the 1980s was defined as Hezbollah’s supreme leader, was not mentioned. So the relationship is not simple – if Iran would be attacked, Hezbollah would stand by it. However, Hezbollah has the freedom to take its own initiatives like they did in 2006 with the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers.
Giyus.org: Since Israel has withdrawn from South Lebanon what's fueling Hezbollah's hatred towards Israel?
Dr. Nir: In the Israeli context, Hezbollah views itself as an armed militia fighting for the people of Lebanon, covering the military weakness of the Lebanese state. Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 was claimed by Nassralah as an achievement of Hezbollah for the people of Lebanon.
After Israel withdrew from South Lebanon, Hezbollah claimed the region of Shebaa farm is Lebanese territory. If and when that issue will be resolved Hezbollah will find another claim to hold on to against Israel, probably seven villages in the eastern Galilee that were part of mandatory Lebanon before 1948. According to their charter, Hezbollah cannot live with the Jewish state – Nassrallah has recently said that even if Israel will sign peace agreements with all Arab nations Hezbollah will never acknowledge Israel's right to exist. Hezbollah's religious agenda views the Jewish state's territory as Islamic land where Palestine should be build.
Nassrallah views his hatred towards Israel as the means to win support among the Lebanese people and to gain popularity around the Arab world. This hate is his wave to ride all the way to the top. In addition, Hezbollah cannot afford to lose its weapons for inner Lebanese politics and if Israel is no longer a threat, Hezbollah has less reason to hold on to its arms.
Giyus.org: How did the war in 2006 impact Hezbollah?
Dr. Nir: In the short term after the war in 2006, Nassrallah and Hezbollah were perceived as heroes. But Nassrallah bluntly said he is proud to be the soldier in the army of Wilayat al Faqih, the religious supreme authority, currently Iranian Ali Khamenei. This statement, along with Nassrallah's inability to keep his promise to rebuild Lebanon, created antagonism among the non-Shia Lebanese people that have realized Hezbollah has fought Iran's fight with Israel at the expense of Lebanon.
In the last 2 years, for the first time, there were villages where people refused to allow Hezbollah to store weapons under their houses. There were villages in South Lebanon that threw out Hezbollah people.
Military wise, Hezbollah today is much stronger than before the war. They had about 14,000 rockets in 2006 and today they have more than 40,000. But in terms of the Lebanonization process, the war in 2006 was a major setback.
Israel has repeatedly stated that if Hezbollah will start the next war, Israel will see Lebanon responsible. However, it is possible that if Hezbollah runs into an internal crisis in Lebanon, they will want to heat up the border with Israel to rally the Lebanese behind them against Israel.
Giyus.org: Since it is an Iranian initiative in Lebanon, how does Hezbollah treat its constituents, the Shia in Lebanon?
Dr. Nir: As a Shia party, the Shia community is the natural support base for Hezbollah. Within the Shia community Hezbollah fights for dominance with the Amal movement.
Since the 1990 we see a migration of support inside the Shia community from Amal Movement to Hezbollah. There are 2 main reasons for this migration – the first is the resistance and hate towards Israel. Hezbollah, as the only armed militia, has become the banner of the resistance to Israel. The second reason for increased Hezbollah support is their community based approach. Hezbollah has built a state within a state providing education and health services free of charge to the Shia community of Lebanon. Through these services they reach out and spread their message to the people of South Lebanon. Other Islamic movements (Shiite or Sunni), like Hamas in Gaza, use this approach to increase support to their cause.
As opposed to Amal, the competing Shia movement, which is basing its welfare projects on limited governmental budget, Hezbollah has an open check from Iran. With this money they've build a social infrastructure to capture the hearts of the Shia in Lebanon.
Feeling deprived is a corner stone in the Shia culture and both Hezbollah and Amal are trying to address that need. The Shia in Lebanon follow one of two paths – the first represented by Amal which believes the Shia can better their situation using the official state bodies of Lebanon. They have key people in the government, army, police, etc. through which they hope to better the Shia daily life.
Hezbollah represent the second more radical path and is emphasizing its position as a national Lebanese militia and political party fighting for the people of Lebanon.
While Hezbollah was founded to create an Islamic state in Lebanon, since the 1990s there is a slow process of Lebanonization that Hezbollah is going through. It is unclear if this process is authentic or a tactical means to gain internal support from the Lebanese people on the way to the ultimate goal of an Islamic regime in Lebanon.
Hezbollah is viewed by the Shia the group most likely to win back their rights in Lebanon and restore their pride. This is their true promise in the eyes of the Shia.
Giyus.org: Being a Shia militia how does Hezbollah view Lebanon's non Shia groups?
Dr. Nir: Although Hezbollah was created to export the Iranian Islamic revolution to Lebanon, Iran has realized in the 1990s that Hezbollah is first of all a Lebanese movement. Iran understood that Hezbollah's power base is the Lebanese Shia people, many of which are secular. So to win their hearts Hezbollah must be more than an Islamic religious movement.
In the absence of a well functioning government in Lebanon, Hezbollah's health and education services attract many non Shia Lebanese, which can use Hezbollah facilities for a fee.
As the only armed militia, Hezbollah's weapons give them an unfair advantage in the politics of Lebanon. Although these weapons were meant to be used only against Israel, in May of 2008, Hezbollah used those weapons to convince the Lebanese government to cancel 2 anti Hezbollah resolutions. The Government wanted to remove Hezbollah's independent communication network and to fire the airport security chief that allowed Hezbollah to put cameras along the take off lanes. Hezbollah did not allow this to happen and used its weapons to support its case. This was the first time Hezbollah used its weapons against the people of Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990. So in essence the weapons that were meant to be used against Israel in the regional conflict were used against Lebanon to gain political achievements.
This conflict proved to the anti Syrian camp in Lebanon that they are very weak. As a result you see the anti Syrian camp folding down. This mini-civil war of May 2008 was what's prompted Hezbollah in the 2009 elections.
Giyus.org: In the last few years Hezbollah has gained political power in Lebanon – what's their political agenda – are they planning to become the ruling party of Lebanon and throw out Hariri's government?
Dr. Nir: That is the big question. After years of research and observation, it is still unclear if Hezbollah truly intend to take control of Lebanon at some point. It is unclear how authentic is the process of Lebanonization the organization has gone through and if they have put the Islamic revolution flag aside.
It is unclear if Hezbollah is mature enough to become a ruling party. As a Shia movement it is easier for them to avoid the actual ruling position and to be able to criticize the ruling party. Nasrallah said recently that if Hezbollah wanted to seize power, it could do so after the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, or immediately after the 2006 war with Israel.
However, it seems that Hezbollah is closer than ever before to declare themselves as rulers. They'll probably not run Lebanon directly but will put someone else in the top positions.
Giyus.org: A United Nations tribunal is expected to announce that members of Hezbollah had a hand in the the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – how would that affect Lebanon as a whole and Hezbollah place in the political map?
Dr. Nir: The UN is basing its suspicions regarding Hezbollah's involvement on locating 21 cell phones that were used in the immediate area of the explosion that killed the former PM. These phones were all bought a day before, were used on the day of the assassination and only on that day. In the 24 hours prior to the explosion one of these phones was used by a Hezbollah member to call his girl friend.
Hezbollah and Syria are doing every effort to make sure none of these allegations would stick to them. These suspicions make Hezbollah look like the devil in the eyes of their Lebanese followers. All of these are behind Hezbollah's current efforts to pressure Hariri to announce that the UN tribunal is a farce, a "Western and Zionist plot" to make Hezbollah look bad. There is also the possibility that members of Hezbollah were activated by a third party, without the involvement of the organization itself. Nasrallah, however, ridiculously is trying to deflect the blame at Israel.
Tensions are extremely high around this issue and it's hard to tell which way things will go, but it's not likely to open another civil war, mainly because there is no other armed militia that can stand up to Hezbollah. Clashes in the streets similar to those of May 2008 are certainly possible.
Giyus.org: Does Western backing of the Lebanon government create a counter force to Hezbollah in Lebanon?
Dr. Nir: The US is at struggle with Iran on the leadership role in the Middle East. Iran impacts US' hegemony in Iraq, in the Palestinian Territories through Hamas and in Lebanon through Hezbollah. To counter this impact in Lebanon, the US and the west are backing the anti Syria-Iran bloc which controls the Government. Since there is no other armed militia in Lebanon, the US invests in the Lebanese army. This is a bit problematic for Israel since these weapons which the US supplies the Lebanese army with will ultimately be used against Israel.
Ironically, the most likely means to limit Hezbollah impact is to increase Syrian involvement in Lebanon. As a secular state, Syria will not allow Hezbollah and Iran to turn Lebanon into an Islamic state. So engaging Syria in a peace process with Israel is likely the most promising route to counter Iran's influence in the Middle East and in Lebanon.
Giyus.org: How does Hezbollah finance its operations? We've seen reports about drug trafficking are they true?
Dr. Nir: While Iran is the main financier of Hezbollah, the organization does use criminal activities to generate additional funds.
The area of Lebanon's valley has ideal conditions to grow poppy and cannabis. These crops have supplied funding for Syrian officers while Syria controlled Lebanon. Other than funding the drugs serve as means to recruit spies in Israel in exchange for drugs. One of Hezbollah's funding sources is drug courier and drug trafficking routes, especially from South America into the United States and Europe. It is estimated that Hezbollah earns about $10M per year from drug related activities.