God’s Revolution: Part III

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.

Thirty years in the making
Thirty years in the making

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.

The Lebanese Battlefield
The Lebanese Battlefield

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.

God’s Revolution: Part II

Partisans of Ali: Lebanon’s Shi’a in the Civil War

An aerial view of the stadium used as an ammunition supply site for the Palestine Liberation Organization during a confrontation with the Israelis.  Marines have been deployed here to participate in a multinational peacekeeping operation.
An aerial view of the stadium allegedly used as an ammunition supply site for the Palestine Liberation Organization during a confrontation with the Israelis. 

Lebanon’s Shi’a Muslims, who are the majority of the population in the Lebanese regions of South Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley, were traditionally one of the Levant’s persecuted minorities. Judged by successive regimes as poor and backwards, they were economically marginalized and kept out of positions of power during the reign of the Ottomans, and later under the colonial French. This tradition of disenfranchisement translated to the Shi’a acquiring only a secondary role in the Lebanese government, established in 1946, which was dominated by Maronite Catholics and Sunni Muslims.

A spiritual awakening amongst the Lebanese Shi’a occurred in the 1960s and 70s when a prodigious Iranian-born cleric, Musa al Sadr, arrived in Lebanon and began to rouse the population to action against their marginalization in Lebanon’s political affairs. From Sadr’s sermons, lectures, and demonstrations blossomed the Amal Movement—an activist organization with the goal of increasing Shi’a representation in Lebanon’s secular government. The movement, despite being headed by a cleric, was nonetheless both socialist and secular in nature.

A civil war erupted in Lebanon in 1975, which began as a conflict between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Lebanese Phalange (a Christian militia), but whose dangers and politics soon spread to consume every other community in the country. Escalating sectarian internecine effectively sidelined both the Lebanese state and army and created circumstances where each sect had to fend for itself amidst a genocidal atmosphere fueled by retaliatory bouts of ethnic cleansing. In 1978, while Lebanon was preoccupied with its chaos, Sadr was kidnapped during a trip to Libya and was never heard from again. His fate is unknown to this day, but it is speculated he was tortured and killed in a Libyan prison. The loss of Sadr’s spiritual leadership led to the first power vacuum that would come to be filled by Khomeini via Hezbollah.

Musa al Sadr
Musa al Sadr

Invasion 1982: Enter Israel

1982 was a pivotal year for Lebanon for two reasons, the first being that it marked the beginning of Israel’s invasion, and the second being that the invasion’s result saw the PLO expelled from Lebanon. The Iranian Response to the Israeli invasion will be discussed in Part III. It is important to note that the PLO occupied an expansive military network in South Lebanon which it used to launch strikes into Israel. The enormous vacuum left by the Palestinians’ extirpation would be filled by Hezbollah, thanks to a combination of aggressive efforts by Iran’s Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and political failures within the Amal Movement.

The Amal Movement lent their tacit support for Israel’s campaign against the PLO, partly because they hated the PLO’s domination of Shi’a territory in South Lebanon, and also because they badly sought to sue for peace in the wake of a nigh-apocalyptic Israeli invasion which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians. The primary goal of Israel’s invasion was to secure permanent peace on their northern border by driving a column of tanks straight to Beirut and instituting regime change. Presidential elections were held under Israeli occupation in 1983, which saw the election of a pro-Israel Maronite Catholic from the Phalange party and the establishment of a unity government to put a halt to the war. Amal joined the unity government despite adamant objections from its rank and file. This agreement was considered an unacceptable surrender by hardline Shi’a and led to the schism within Amal that birthed Hezbollah, with the IRGC serving as midwife.

Beirut, 1982
Beirut, 1982

The Syrian-Iranian Alliance

At the risk of providing too much exposition, it is necessary to briefly describe the relationship between Syria and Iran, because Hezbollah could not have risen to power without the approval of then-president Hafez al Assad. During the 1970s and 80s, both Syria and Iran were diplomatically isolated countries. However, they both found common ground with their mutual hatred of Saddam Hussein. The Iran-Iraq War catalyzed the forging of a strong alliance between the Syrians and Iranians which survives to this day. As part of this alliance, the Syrians, gatekeepers to the Levant, allowed the IRGC to set up training camps in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley in return for access to cheap Iranian oil.

The Syrians were also extremely cautious about escalating conflict with Israel, as the Zionists had struck fear into the hearts of Arab rulers with their conquest of the Arab capitol of Beirut. Fearing a replay of the same circumstances at the gates of Damascus, Syria cherished Hezbollah as a bulwark between it and a crushing Israeli armored advance.

God’s Revolution: Part I

Alfred-Yaghobzadeh_29

The purpose of this article is to provide information on the Iranian relationship with Hezbollah. There are questions over whether Hezbollah is a mere puppet of turbaned Persian overlords in Tehran, and I hope that the contents of this write-up clarify a topic whose facts are often muddled by propaganda from various sides, and whose reality is made doubly more difficult to assess due to the secrecy of Hezbollah itself.

If I were to sum up the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran simply, I would say that Hezbollah is a full-fledged province of the Revolutionary Islamic Republic established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. The Revolution in its ideological form is pan-Islamic and thus both transnational and anti-nationalist. Khomeini’s revolutionary ideology called for the erasure of colonial boundaries and the joining of Muslims across the Middle East into a single Islamic State.

Of course, this must sound eerily familiar. Since 2011, the world has witnessed the evaporation of national boundaries all over the Middle East, especially with the rise of ISIS and the increasing irrelevance of Sykes-Picot across the region. However, back in the 70s and 80s, when secularism and socialism were touted as the salvation ideologies that would peaceably integrate otherwise disparate confessional and ethnic groups within Frankenstein-like state entities, Islamists were considered subversive radicals that threatened to unwind the efforts of generations of secular, nationalist rulers. The innovative nature of the Islamic Republic is something that often goes ignored–typically lambasted as irrational and owing to a touch or more of insanity on the part of the Iranians. However, the creation and foundation of the Islamic Republic places Khomeini up in the same league as Lenin in terms of shaking up the world’s existing political order.

anti-shah

Khomeini’s Islamic Republic even served as the inspiration for Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the rise of the Salafi movement, which was the Sunni rebranding of the Islamic Revolution. Khomeini sought to recreate society along Islamic lines in a form of government called Wilayet al Faqih, where law descends from religious clergy, and whose primary texts are the Quran and their accompanying scriptures, the Hadith.

The Revolutionaries: Harbingers of Apocalypse

From its very beginning, the Islamic Revolution in Iran sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East. The sheer ferocity and tenaciousness that its revolutionaries brought into combat and the vitriol of Khomeini’s rhetoric were biblical. The world watched with mouths agape as Khomeini’s fanatical revolutionary army sent wave after human wave into fortified Iraqi defenses during the Iran-Iraq War. The reverberation of shouts of ‘Death to America’ from hundreds of thousands of Iranians gathered around their Spiritual Guide were no doubt felt in the halls of Washington loud and clear, especially when Khomeini’s young revolutionaries raided the superpower’s embassy and took tens of its personnel hostage. Seemingly out of nowhere, Iran had risen in open defiance to the existing world order and demonstrated, through horrific sacrifice on the battlefields of Iran and Iraq, that it was willing to pay the ultimate price to lay claim to its goals.

With its actions, Iran clearly demonstrated that it sought a regional reordering, starting with the overthrow of secular Arab regimes and later the elimination of Israel and expulsion of all other “colonial enterprises” in the region. In this author’s humble opinion, it is Iran that the world can thank (and hate) for the popularity of Islamism throughout the world today. Islamism came to constitute a Third Option in the bipolar world of Capitalism and Communism thanks to the sheer willpower of Khomeini’s religious army and the precedents they set.

Khomeini’s brand of Islamic chauvinism was a reaction to what he perceived as decades of humiliation of Muslims at the hands of colonial Europeans and, later, the Israeli conquest of Jerusalem. Khomeinists viewed the Muslim world as one wrought with sickness and lethargy, and whose cure was a return to the fundamentals of Islam. Of course, in the secular Middle East, and in a world order where Islam had effectively been buried on the world political stage since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a revitalization would require nothing short of a total cultural revolution of the likes seen in the Communist countries.

Trench positions attacked by Iranian human waves
Trench positions attacked by Iranian human waves

Khomeini’s plan for the regional supremacy of his ideology was to first target his fellow Shi’a, as those co-religionists were his closest associates during his Islamic studies in the Iraqi city of Najaf. It was in Najaf that Khomeini first began delivering lectures on his radical new form of government. The first two areas that were targeted by Khomeini for conversion were Iraq and Lebanon, who were approximately 60 and 33 per cent Shi’a, respectively. Khomeini found little fertile ground for Wilayet al Faqih in Iraq, which had a strong central government led by Saddam Hussein. Saddam mercilessly smote Islamists in his midst, but Lebanon, with the chaos and relative anarchy resultant of its ensuing civil war, proved to be the perfect testing ground for the viability of the Islamic Republic outside of Iran.

The fervor of the Iranian Revolution was not contained to the battlefields of Iraq and Iran however—when the revolution spread to Lebanon, Hezbollah echoed the commitment and fanaticism of its Iranian peers with its pioneering of suicide bombing as a tactic in the urban battlefields of Lebanon, with dramatic results. The world was fundamentally caught by surprise by the Islamic Revolution, as the maelstrom of religious energy summoned by Khomeini became a strategic threat to the superpowers’ positions in the Middle East. Thus began a policy of containment of Iran by both superpowers and regional rivals alike that continues to this day.