Jumping into the fire

By Tony Badran
Anyone monitoring Hezbollah’s rhetoric over the last several days could not but notice a spike in its apocalyptic pitch. Perhaps it was the religious occasion of Ashura, but more likely, it was the result of the tense regional situation, namely the increased paranoia in Tehran. Convinced that an attack against them is imminent, the Iranians are now preparing for war and publicly declaring that Hezbollah, and thus Lebanon, will be their first line of defense. That is why in his most recent speeches, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has been preparing the Shia community in advance for the ruin that awaits them as a consequence. 
All talk of Hezbollah’s “Lebanonization” and its supposed definition as a “national resistance” aside, the reality is that the group’s first and foremost task is to be Iran’s long arm. The Iranians are now making this fact known explicitly. Two weeks ago, Yahya Rahim Safavi, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards and military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, declared that in case of an Israeli attack on Iran, the Iranian retaliation will come from Lebanon, “because all the Zionist cities are within the range of our ally Hezbollah''s Katyushas.” In other words, the order has been given and Hezbollah is up to bat.
The problem is that, for Hezbollah, this order comes at a rather bad time, as the Party of God is facing serious constraints and uncertainties, especially as its Syrian ally struggles for its life, putting in question the group’s strategic depth in Syria. Moreover, Nasrallah now must mobilize a reluctant Shia community, still reeling from the utter devastation of the 2006 war, to follow the party into the abyss for the sake of its Iranian patron.
It is against this backdrop that Nasrallah’s Ashura speeches this past week, including his rare public appearance with the celebrating crowd in Beirut on Tuesday, are best understood. 
Of all those speeches, perhaps most telling was the one Nasrallah gave on the third night of Ashura, last Monday. The overriding motif of the address was the perseverance of the faithful regardless of the hardships they must face and the sacrifices they must make. Nasrallah made it amply clear that what was expected of the believers was nothing short of self-sacrifice. To drive the point home, he referenced a story from Shia tradition about how the faithful—men, women and children—willingly jumped into a pit of fire rather than renounce their Imam.
Nasrallah then tied the ancient lore to the present, revealing the core of what he expected from his followers. “We, the men, women and children who held steadfast in the July [2006] war, are not frightened by their war or their weapons … In these hard times, facing all the challenges, dangers and slander, and facing the excessive strength and cunning of the enemy and the scarcity of supporters and defenders, we say to Hussein, we will not abandon you, or your religion, or your banner, or your Karbala, or your goals, even if we were to be cut, sawed, and our women and children banished,” Nasrallah shouted, rallying his supporters, welding their religious and communal identity with Hezbollah.
Similarly, there was little subtlety when Nasrallah made a surprise appearance in Dahiyeh on Tuesday. The purpose behind that was to bind himself, Hezbollah and the Shia community in one fate—which is decided for them in Tehran. “I have chosen to be among you today for a few minutes … so the whole world can hear and we can renew our pledge,” he told the crowd. At the heart of this pledge of allegiance (bay’ah) are Hezbollah’s weapons. “We will hold on to our resistance and to the weapons of the resistance,” he said.  
Why is Nasrallah so keen on reaffirming his community’s allegiance to his party at this juncture? The episode of the Katyusha rockets that were recently fired on Israel is instructive. Hezbollah denied responsibility, and blame was thrown at an obscure Sunni Islamist outfit with alleged ties to al Qaeda. Many saw the episode as more of a Syrian attempt to remind the world that Bashar al-Assad could still light up the front with Israel, as well as to warn them that what might come after him would be al Qaeda jihadists. The Syrian regime’s publicists didn’t even bother with nuance in making this point.
But the Syrian angle was likely secondary. Furthermore, the accused Sunni group has denied responsibility for the attack. Most probably, Hezbollah launched the attack, much in line with Safavi’s threat that immediately preceded it, in retaliation for the mysterious explosions that have rocked Iranian facilities in the last month. But the subdued manner in which this was done is the most interesting aspect of the episode.
Hezbollah’s caution does away with an enduring and destructive myth from the 1990s, which holds that Hezbollah managed to achieve a “balance of terror” with Israel. In reality, Nasrallah knows full well what will befall the Shia community, indeed all of Lebanon, once Hezbollah attacks Israel on behalf of Iran, which is one reason why the party remained mum about the Katyusha attacks.  
With the prospect of the decimation of his Shia followers, it becomes easier to understand why Nasrallah is practically beseeching them, preemptively, to persevere in the face of inevitable devastation and, literally, jump with him into a pit of fire. For that is what he and his superiors in Iran will bring raining down on their heads.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. This article was first published on NOWLebanon.