Iranian déjà-vu in Lebanon

By Tony Badran


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial visit to Lebanon last week has been analyzed from several angles. Some commentary focused on the Iranian domestic angle and Ahmadinejad’s use of Lebanon to counter popular charges of illegitimacy and economic woes at home. In this way Ahmadinejad is hardly unique. There is a tradition of Iranian presidents using the Lebanese theater to settle accounts in Tehran and chart out their own foreign policy visions. However, one thing in this dynamic has remained constant throughout it all: the centrality and primacy of Hezbollah.

The Lebanese theater was always seen as an integral extension of its Iranian counterpart, where the line between domestic and foreign policies was often blurred. This was the case in the mid-1970s through to the first three years of the new Islamic regime in Iran, when two main factions of the revolutionary cadres fought a bitter domestic battle, in which Lebanon was a central arena. The outcome of this battle, which resulted in the consolidation of power by the prevailing Islamic Republic Party (IRP), also had direct consequences in Beirut, since the IRP became the progenitor of Hezbollah, its counterpart and namesake in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the allies of Imam Moussa Sadr and Amal - the Liberation Movement of Iran - were either sidelined or killed.
After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the shape of the various factions was modified, but the rivalries remained. As Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani assumed the presidency, he was involved in a struggle with Hezbollah’s godfather, Ali Akbar Mohtashami and his faction. In order to try and create more latitude for himself, Rafsanjani briefly initiated an opening to Amal. The move was interpreted as an attempt by Rafasanjani to create his own policy in Lebanon – he even appointed his brother as head of the Lebanon desk at the Foreign Affairs Ministry – and circumvent the Mohtashami faction, which had its power base in Hezbollah, and which could frustrate Rafsanjani’s policy in Lebanon.
However, the ploy came to naught, as Amal was unwilling to play the game and was already beholden to Damascus. But more importantly, Hezbollah was simply stronger in the balance of power with Amal. As a result, even though Mohtashami was sidelined in Iran, Hezbollah persisted as a constant pillar of Iranian foreign policy.
Rafsanjani’s successor, Mohammad Khatami, would also use Lebanon for his own domestic purposes. Khatami ran on a reformist platform, and in 1996, before winning the presidential election, paid a visit to Lebanon, where a number of his close advisors had worked and lived. It seemed as though Khatami, who is married to a niece of Moussa Sadr, and had ties in Lebanon outside of Hezbollah’s circles, was consciously reviving and appropriating Sadr’s persona, by emphasizing Muslim-Christian ecumenism, coexistence and “civilizational dialogue.”

This was also reflected in his schedule in Beirut, where he deliberately met with the Maronite Patriarch and a host of Christian figures. He also met with a senior Shia cleric, Muhammad Mahdi Shamseddin, a close associate of Sadr, who had had tense relations with Hezbollah’s backers in Iran in the 1980s.

In so doing, Khatami was using Lebanon to project his own political vision in Iran. Nonetheless, Khatami’s platform and his broader ties in Lebanon had no impact on the centrality of Hezbollah in the Iranian-Lebanese relationship and in Tehran''s foreign policy.
This point was articulated in an interesting billboard erected by Hezbollah in the town of Qana during its extravagant reception of Ahmadinejad. The board displayed the pictures of Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, and Ahmadinejad on the right; Moussa Sadr, the late former Iranian defense minister Mostafa Chamran, Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, on the left; and Amal’s chief, Nabih Berri in the middle. Underneath, the caption read: “From Lebanon to Iran… A single destiny.”
The symbolism conveyed the message that Ahmadinejad represented the authentic heir of the Khomeini school of thought (what in Hezbollah parlance is referred to as khatt al-imam – the Imam’s line), a point Nasrallah made explicit in his speech when he welcomed the Iranian president by telling him “we smell in you the aroma of the holy Imam Khomeini.”
In so doing, Nasrallah aimed to bestow legitimacy on Ahmadinejad as the true embodiment of Khomeini’s original vision for the Islamic Republic. Nasrallah’s statement was followed a few days later by a speech from Khamenei before massive crowds in Qom, urging Iranians to rally and unite around Ahmadinejad.
On the other hand, by including Sadr as well as his close aide and co-founder of Amal, Chamran, in the poster, Nasrallah is projecting a revisionist narrative of continuity and unity, subsuming the Sadr and Amal legacy in a unitary trajectory that culminates in the primacy of Hezbollah, both in Lebanon and in Iran.
Of course, the reality was never quite so harmonious. Khomeini’s relationship with Sadr was tense, and there are reasons to believe that his lieutenants in the Islamic Republic Party, Hezbollah’s creators, were complicit in his disappearance. The same goes for Chamran, whom Hezbollah’s architects in Iran despised and distrusted until he died in “mysterious circumstances.” Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy continues to be challenged internally.
However, it is equally a reality that the Revolutionary Guards have seized power both in Iran and in Lebanon, and have shown that they are willing to use brute force to secure it.  Perhaps then, underneath the ritual we witnessed in Lebanon, that is the bottom line message. 


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article first appeared on NOW Lebanon.