Since 1985, Hezbollah, backed by the Iranian regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has been amassing its own vast military arsenal. A 1989 deal between the regimes in Damascus and Tehran allowed the hardline sectarian Lebanese militia, whose name translates as ‘Party of God’, to strengthen its military infrastructure and continue its operations in south Lebanon. By 1991, Hezbollah had become the lynchpin of the anti-Israeli ‘resistance’ in Lebanon. Thereafter, the group sought to expand beyond its original remit as a sectarian militia. Upon the recommendations of the Iranian leadership, Hezbollah went from being an extremist organization into a political force in Lebanon, launching active preparations for parliamentary elections.
Nowadays, Hezbollah is the most powerful political force in Lebanon, as well as providing services as a major Shia social and ‘humanitarian’ organization. Hezbollah is clearly a significant regional presence, with Tehran using the group’s influence in Lebanon, Syria and the region to help in recruiting, training, and preparing troops and militia members for battlefield operations.
Since its earliest days, Hezbollah has established cover operations to act as a figleaf to conceal its military activities and deployment, benefiting from the legitimizing effect of its role in the Lebanese government, parliament and presidency. Hezbollah has also been well served by its now-waning popularity among Lebanon’s Shiite population and many Sunnis in the region for its military campaign against Israel, as well as by presenting itself as a representative and ‘defender’ of the oppressed Shiite community providing social and humanitarian services to Lebanese society.
These days, Hezbollah is far more than simply a political movement, wielding legislative, executive, and judicial authority, and exerting power over institutions for the collection and distribution of taxes, as well as running its own education system, overseeing military, intelligence and counter-intelligence operations, and running its media network; all these branches exist and function within the movement’s framework. Hezbollah wields absolute control over its members, possessing exhaustive and encyclopedic records on them, and, most importantly, relying on their goodwill to ensure their compliance with its edicts. The concept of citizenship is not, after all, defined by possession of a passport but by the individual’s willingness to be associated with and loyal to a state or a movement.
The recent controversial resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri was, therefore, a major setback for the group akin to the former demilitarization in Lebanon which forced it to give up some of its weapons. This was a harsh slap to Hezbollah’s formerly largely unchallenged authority, with Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah's subsequent speeches indicating that Hezbollah sensed that an international coalition is set to be established, with several steps to be taken to diminish its damaging influence in the region. Even though Hezbollah is deeply integrated into the Lebanese political scene, the extent of the group’s impact can be reduced, regionally at least, and scaled back to ensure that its influence doesn’t extend beyond Lebanon’s borders; this is particularly pertinent given the upcoming roundtable discussion over whether or not Lebanon will maintain the current presidency of Michel Aoun, which is likely to take some time.
A pressing issue at present is to liberate Lebanon from its current de facto status of a ‘non-state’ which has impeded the country since Hezbollah’s emergence in 1982; such a move would restrict Hezbollah’s machinations to help in creating other sectarian militias across in the region. Moves towards achieving this goal are already underway, with the beginning of the Hezbollah-linked, Iranian-backed Houthis' collapse in Yemen providing a promising sign of reducing Tehran’s destabilizing influence across the region. It should also be noted, however, that Iran’s regime may well redeploy Yemen’s Houthis as militia members in other regional countries, most notably Iraq and Syria.
In its heartland in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is currently facing a stalemate in relation to the latest events in the region, with the group now attempting to escape from this deadlock and move forward; some analysts suspect that Hezbollah may achieve this by activating sleeper cells in other regional nations to put further pressure on Arab leaders in an already turbulent period. The group, internationally classified as a terror organization, is already facing increasing disillusionment and anger domestically, with Nasrallah coming under fierce condemnation for his use of death squads to intimidate and silence his critics and for using his position to amass a personal fortune estimated at more than $250 million, even while Lebanon’s Shiite population suffers from crushing poverty. According to recent reports, the latest crises have led to intensifying power struggles within Hezbollah’s leadership, with Nasrallah attempting to destroy any rivals. Meanwhile, the Shiite business community in Lebanon, which has been Hezbollah's primary source of domestic support, is increasingly nervous of American sanctions if they continue to cooperate with the terrorist organization.
Hezbollah is also reportedly seeking to activate sleeper cells in Central and North Africa and Latin America, with Iran using the group to expand the influence of its heavily sectarian revolutionary and ‘resistance’ principles, especially in Latin America, leveraging their shared enmity toward the United States of America to strengthen the so-called Islamic Republic’s international presence.
All these factors mean that it is imperative for the entire international community to work together in thwarting Hezbollah's terror activities overseas and reducing the destabilizing extremist, sectarian influence of the Iranian regime and its theocratic Velayet-e Faqih (‘Guardianship of the Jurist’) governing principle.
By Mohammad S. Alzou'bi, a Senior Researcher in Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies