Death of the Iranian ‘fig leaf’ in Lebanon

The only Shi’ite religious leader who can be called the spiritual leader of Hizbullah will be Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Fadlallah 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Fadlallah 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
On July 4, we heard about the death of Imam Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in Lebanon, who was usually described as the spiritual leader of Hizbullah. This is the death of the “fig leaf” for Iran’s political and military activities in Lebanon, and the end of the false reality where we were led to believe that Hizbullah had a spiritual leader in Lebanon. Fadlallah’s story is mainly about the failure of Israel’s policy toward the Shi’ite community in Lebanon, where our activities and lack of any relationship helped strengthen the perception that the war with Israel transcends the interests of the Shi’ite community.
From the day Fadlallah arrived in Lebanon in 1966, he formulated a worldview that was completely different from that of the then most significant Shi’ite religious leader in Lebanon, Imam Musa Sadr. Sadr led the Shi’ite community to focus on its own interests and build its institutions, and he spoke out against the Palestinians, who had taken control of southern Lebanon and were using it for their struggle against Israel. Fadlallah remained in Sadr’s shadow until February 25, 1978, when Sadr disappeared during an official visit to Libya, where he was probably murdered along with his escorts by Muammar Gaddafi.
In 1975, Fadlallah wrote his book, Islam and the Logic of Force, which explains that military force must serve the aims of Islam in its war against infidels and imperialists. This was the approach that saw the adoption of an antiimperialist, and in particular, anti-Israel agenda.
THE KHOMEINI revolution in Iran, on February 1, 1979, was the formative event that Fadlallah had been waiting for. At the start of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime, he sent emissaries that became formal and informal officials spreading the revolution in Lebanon, and Fadlallah became their contact and ally. Fadlallah was an asset for the Iranians because he could pass on the Iranian message in his eloquent Arabic, overcoming the cultural differences between Lebanon’s Shi’ite community and Khomeini’s emissaries.
In 1979, Amal was the largest and most influential organization in Lebanon’s Shi’ite community, and Fadlallah worked vigorously to change the way it operated, so that it would match the mood coming from Teheran. But after his efforts failed, Fadlallah was compelled to give his consent and support to the establishment of a new Shi’ite organization, Hizbullah. Fadlallah decided to officially stay out of Hizbullah to prevent a split in the Shi’ite community, but he continued to be seen by many as Hizbullah’s spiritual leader.
Fadlallah’s influence over Hizbullah was limited and the belief was that while at first there was close cooperation between him and the Iranian emissaries, as Hizbullah strengthened, the commitment of the Iranian emissaries to him diminished.
Fadlallah led the way in the perception that the struggle with Israel transcended the interests of the Shi’ite community. In a speech that he made in Bint Jbeil in 1972, he attacked those who maintained that the departure of the Palestinians from southern Lebanon would solve the Shi’ite community’s problems, and he claimed that Israel was not attacking southern Lebanon because of the Palestinians but because of its desire to conquer the area as it had done in three wars since its establishment.
He took advantage of Operation Litani, the First Lebanon War and the arrival of the IDF in Beirut to strengthen solidarity between the Shi’ites and the Palestinians. The longer Israel stayed in Lebanon, so Fadlallah’s position strengthened on Israeli intentions to conquer Lebanese land and not only solve the problem of Palestinian attacks.
With the disappearance of Sadr and the success of the Iranian revolution, there was a significant change in Fadlallah’s power and status. The absence of competition over the hearts and minds of the Shi’ite community was now backed up by the money, propaganda and philosophy coming from Teheran.
The story of Fadlallah is also the story of Israel’s failure in Lebanon and a missed opportunity to make the Shi’ites into allies. A lack of interest in the Shi’ites played right into the hands of Fadlallah, Hizbullah and Iran. Israel, which had liberated the Shi’ite south from the tyrannical control of Palestinian organizations, failed to build bridges to this community and in particular gave no indication that it was ready to allow it to control its region.
Israel erred in that it did not develop relations of trust with the Shi’ite community, which suffered humiliation and lack of respect from the Sunni and Christian communities and the Palestinians. The Shi’ite community that had lived alongside the Lebanese Jewish community in the Wadi Abu Jmil neighborhood in west Beirut did not receive proper treatment from us, and we adopted the same approach as the other communities toward it.
The death of Fadlallah is the death of the last Iranian fig leaf in Lebanon and from now on there will not be a Shi’ite religious leader who can be called the spiritual leader of Hizbullah. From now on, in practice and in public, it will be Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the spiritual leader of Iran, who will also have spiritual leadership and religious authority over the Shi’ites in Lebanon.
The writer is chairman of the Smart Middle East Forum.