The Advent of Hezbollah
When the Israeli invasion began in 1982, Khomeini immediately and fervently called for the dispatch of the IRGC to Lebanon to take a direct combat role against the invasion. Syria tempered Iranian ambitions, allowing for a limited dispatch of an official number of 2,000 IRGC members who would only be allowed to conduct operations in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, but were also granted permission to train locals to fight Israel as well. IRGC operatives arrived in waves of six to seven hundred between 1982 and 1983 and immediately went to work setting up military training camps, religious schools, and hospitals throughout the Beqaa, Beirut, and South Lebanon.
According to Magnus Ranstorp, the Guards’ activity soon brought them into conflict with the Lebanese Army, with the result of the latter being expelled from Beqaa after a series of short battles. Yes, you heard that right: the IRGC had effectively conquered a significant portion of Lebanese territory as a prelude to its setup of Hezbollah, leading to the Lebanese government cutting all ties with Iran in 1983 and fueling early domestic animosity towards the nascent Iranian project.
As a part of the IRGC’s recruitment plan, Hezbollah’s early membership was originally drawn from favored Shi’a clans in the Beqaa Valley, Beirut, and South Lebanon in order to prevent infiltration by enemies—an extremely common and deadly threat to militia groupings throughout the war. These Lebanese insiders were given access to Iran’s monetary, financial, and military resources in order to establish other Hezbollah units throughout Lebanon.
Many former members of the Amal Movement also joined Hezbollah following outrage at their organization’s leadership for supporting a pro-Israel unity government. Hezbollah’s early combat victories also won them many supporters as well as international notoriety. A 1983 suicide attack on American and French barracks in Beirut led to the unilateral withdrawal of American and French forces by 1984. 1983 would also end with the assassination of the Israeli-installed president of Lebanon, which also killed the unity government and thus Israeli designs on Lebanon.
Adding to its string of early victories, by 1985, a successful ground war spearheaded by Hezbollah had pushed the Israelis out of the strategic Chouf mountain range in Lebanon and scaled back the gains made by Israel’s invasion force to a buffer zone five miles wide in Southern Lebanon. The war to push the Israelis out of their unilaterally proclaimed buffer zone and back over the Lebanese-Israeli border would take another 15 years, ending with a unilateral Israeli pullout from Lebanon in the year 2000.
Within only a year of its existence, Hezbollah had already threatened the strategic interests of the United States, Israel, and former colonial master France. The Islamic Revolution, with its goal of reconquest of the Middle East from the West, was playing out exactly as Khomeini had planned.
Hezbollah’s Structure and Iran’s Role in It
While it is popular to claim that Hezbollah is Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, the simple descriptor of “proxy” does not really define their relationship fully. More accurately, Hezbollah is a province within an Islamic State based in Iran. It is essentially cut from Iranian fabric in terms of education, culture, and mission. Perhaps an apt comparison is the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, where PR is essentially a US state but is nonetheless kept nominally separate for political reasons. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and several other senior Hezbollah leaders are fluent in Farsi, have received clerical training in Iran, and petition the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for judgment in circumstances when their politburo is deadlocked on a decision. The leaders of both Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Government also intermarry with one another, making their relationship quite literally a family affair.
On a more practical level, Lebanon, with its notoriously weak government, is unable to provide basic services like garbage pickup, water decontamination, road building, and myriad other stately functions. As a result, Iran picks up the tab via Hezbollah who are also responsible for several duties including the transporting and treatment of hundreds of tons worth of trash and refuse on a daily basis, medical treatment centers, and education for the young.
These close ties render Hezbollah much more than a simple puppet of Iran. Iran has a high enough degree of trust in Nasrallah and Hezbollah that it gives them considerable autonomy over their decisions, particularly when it comes to battlefield operations and preparation.
Hezbollah combat units before the Syrian Civil War were restricted to operating in their own towns of origin. So the men from South Lebanon were tasked with defending South Lebanon and the men from Beqaa defend the Beqaa. This structure has since wildly changed since the start of Syria’s Civil War, which has seen the deployment of Hezbollah units to foreign territory in Syria. However, a large part of the appeal of Hezbollah to local Lebanese Shi’a is the degree of autonomy and respect they are afforded by Iran.
Hezbollah is cautious to admit just how intimate its relations are with Iran given the fact that its domestic enemies within Lebanon view it as a usurper of Lebanese territory in the name of Iran. Obviously, this assumption is correct for the most part, even though Hezbollah does participate in the Lebanese parliament and Hassan Nasrallah frequently makes speeches about domestic policies.
In any case, as the Lebanese state continues on its slow, gradual path toward death, Hezbollah will undoubtedly outlive the fading nation, even amidst the turmoil in neighboring Syria. Iran has attempted to replicate the success of the Islamic Republic in Iraq with Iraqi Hezbollah and, more recently, with its training and advising of the Iraqi government’s Hashd al Sha’abi with hopes to extend the Revolution’s reach ever further. Nonetheless, Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah remains the crown jewel of the Islamic Revolution outside of Iran and one of the premiere fighting forces on the planet.