Hezbollah in nowhere land

Is the movement fleeting or a powerful state sponsor of terrorism with staying power?

A POSTER of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in living color in Nakoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, last month. (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
A POSTER of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in living color in Nakoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, last month.
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
The title of Prof. Hilal Khashan’s book – Hizbullah: A Mission to Nowhere – neatly encapsulates its invaluable contribution to our understanding of the Lebanese terrorist movement.
Khashan accomplishes his declared goal, “to show readers that the emergence of Hizbullah was unnecessary – detrimental even – for the political evolution of Lebanese Shi’ites.”
Equally important, the professor, who teaches at the American University of Beirut, covers in nine chapters the enormous damage Hezbollah has inflicted on the Middle East and across the international community.
Khashan, a US-trained expert on Middle Eastern security, does yeoman’s service in analyzing how the Islamic Republic of Iran gave birth to Hezbollah and seeks to expand its radical jihadi ideology.
“Directly created by Iran, its [Hezbollah’s] strategic mission goes beyond resisting Israeli occupation and controlling the joints of the Lebanese political system to exporting Khomeini’s Islamic revolution and wilayat al-faqih [Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist]. There is endless evidence to support the claim that Hizbullah is an Iranian Trojan Horse in the Middle East and possibly beyond,” he writes.
According to Khashan, “The wilayat al-faqih concept of the Iranian Revolution accounted for ‘...preparatory events preceding the resurrection, including the advent of the Mahdi,’ and inspired the apocalyptic religious creed of Hizbullah.” Under the wilayat al-faqih theory in Shi’ite Islam, Islam gives a faqih (Islamic jurist) custodianship over people.
Khashan uses the term “organic” in two sections to describe the set of internal relations that binds the Tehran regime with Hezbollah. For example, he writes: “The political ideology of Hizbullah and its organic nexus with the Islamic Republic of Iran precludes Lebanon’s fragmented political elite from reaching long-term framework agreements.” It cannot be overstated how crucial it is to document how Iran’s regime grafted itself onto a significant part of the Lebanese state (Hezbollah), culminating in Hezbollah becoming the de facto ruler of Lebanon. And the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, seeks to replicate his Hezbollah state model in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Khashan covers, in a deeply granular way, how the former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Ali Shamkhani unified seven Lebanese Shi’ite groups into a movement that formally declared itself to be Hezbollah (the Party of God) in 1985.
ONE MAJOR quibble this reviewer has is with Khashan’s deterministic sense of history regarding the First Lebanon War. He writes that “Ayatollah Khomeini found it possible to export his version of Islamic revolution to Lebanon because of the existence of a sizable Shi’ite community there. His efforts would not have been successful without the Israeli invasion of the country in June 1982.” A solid argument can be articulated that even without Israel’s invasion in 1982, meant to stop PLO terrorism operating from southern Lebanon, Ruhollah Khomeini’s ideology would have found fertile territory among the Lebanese Shi’ite population. Plainly put, the formation of Hezbollah was not a response to Israel; rather, it was a movement cultivated by Iranians based in Lebanon who had been opposed to the rule of shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The germs of Khomeinism were present in Lebanon during the 1970s. Interplay between the Lebanese Shi’ite community and pro-Khomeini ideologues and foot soldiers solidified the foundation for Hezbollah.
Given the combination of the “earthquake,” as the late Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, the “godfather” of Hezbollah, termed Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, with the enormous zeal of Khomeini’s charisma, the creation of a Tehran-controlled movement in Lebanon was probably just a matter of time.
AS KHASHAN demonstrates with no shortage of quotes from Hezbollah’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s goal mirrors that of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“Our crystal-clear project – being ideological believers – is to establish an Islamic state in which Lebanon is a part of a greater Islamic state...,” declared Nasrallah.
Khashan marshals compelling evidence to show Hezbollah’s destructive fury and its consequences for Lebanon and beyond. “Hizbullah’s foreign adventures... brought worldwide hostility to it, and broadened the rift between Shi’ites and Islam’s Sunni majority. Its foreign activities as an Iranian pawn hit hardest in Lebanon. The human toll of its regional wars caused grief to many Shi’ite families in Lebanon. By assuming enormous responsibilities dictated by its Iranian patrons, it invited international sanctions, contributed to the further decline of the struggling Lebanese economy – for reasons unrelated to it – and put it on the brink of collapse.” Hezbollah’s decision to join in Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s war against what was initially a peaceful insurrection in 2011 has abetted the deaths of over 500,000 people in Syria. Yet Nasrallah’s declared raison d’être is to wage “resistance” (in other words, war and terrorism) against Israel.
“Nasrallah’s rationalizations and excuses for sending young men to fight and die in Syria decreased the base of Hizbullah’s popular support because for years Shi’ites were told to stay focused on the Palestinian cause,” notes Khashan in discussing Nasrallah’s loss of credibility.
He adds that “the Shi’ite rank and file have never appreciated Hizbullah’s Syrian policy. “There is a steady and discernible erosion in Hizbullah’s public image among Shi’ites because of its involvement in the Syrian war, and for meddling in affairs extremely sensitive to criticism [in] GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries – like [in] most if not all other Arab countries,” even if only verbally. Shi’ites resent Hizbullah leaders’ continuous criticism of GCC governments because it has made them unwelcome in these oil-rich countries.
War crimes committed by Hezbollah against Sunni Muslims have deprived Nasrallah of popularity within the Arab world. In 2016, the six Sunni countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council classified Hezbollah as a terrorist entity.
Hezbollah’s growing pariah status also prompted, for example, Germany, Britain and a number of Latin American countries to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist movement.
KHASHAN’S BOOK could well serve as a warning regarding President-elect Joe Biden’s interest in rejoining the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name for the Iran nuclear deal.
“Nasrallah could not hide his satisfaction at the imminent signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – which referred to the Iranian nuclear dossier – between Iran and the five-plus-one group. Overtaken by joy, he assured his supporters ‘that the Iranian nuclear deal will be big and important to the region.... Iran will become richer and wealthier and will also become more influential.’” Why would the US wish to reenter the JCPOA if the agreement will pump billions into the coffers of Iran’s regime and its wholly owned subsidiary Hezbollah? After Iran’s regime secured billions of dollars in sanctions relief in 2015, the funds were not used to ameliorate poverty in Iran. Khamenei funneled the windfall to Hezbollah, the Assad regime’s war effort, and other forms of terrorism (think the Houthis in Yemen).
KHASHAN GRAPPLES in his last chapter with the growing criticism of Hezbollah among its erstwhile constituents, quoting Lebanese Shi’ite religious authority ‘Ali al-Amin saying “Arab Shi’ites’ loyalty should be to their countries.” The professor writes that “opposition to Hizbullah is growing, even though it remains confined to private meetings.” He points to 2016 municipal elections in south Lebanon whose results revealed a drop in the movement’s popularity.
All of these trends are encouraging. However, Khashan notes that a “Shi’ite rebellion against Hizbullah is unlikely.”
Still, he believes that Hezbollah will eventually be viewed as “an ephemeral phenomenon in the big scheme of events in Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East.”
Victims of Hezbollah terrorism and jingoism will form their own views of Hezbollah on the Middle East stage.
The reader of this fine book will, I strongly suspect, deliver his or her verdict on the role of Hezbollah in the Middle East as a fleeting terrorist movement or a powerful state sponsor of terrorism with staying power.
A writer for The Jerusalem Post, Weinthal is a fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
By Hilal Khashan
Lexington Books
186 pages; $90