Lebanon’s main Islamist party has undergone a profound transformation over the past three decades. Once associated with suicide bombings and hostage-taking, Hezbollah has steadily evolved from an underground movement in 1982 to the dominant political player in Lebanon in 2015. Yet even though Hezbollah was stronger militarily and politically by 2015, it also faced greater challenges than ever before. They ranged from the party’s massive expansion since 2006 to the rising domestic discontent over its refusal to abandon its weapons, which altered the geostrategic balance in the Middle East.
Hezbollah’s role in the region has been particularly controversial. The most powerful regional militia, Hezbollah used its vast arsenal to fight Israel for thirty-four days in 2006. The conflict was Israel’s longest Middle East war and left no clear winner, although Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah emerged afterwards at the top of popularity polls across the region. But its armed intervention in Syria, beginning in 2013, on behalf of President Bashar al Assad deeply tarnished its image among Sunnis across the region as a champion of anti-Israel resistance. By 2015, the party’s has expansion in manpower, military capabilities and funding also produced looser internal controls and made it more susceptible to corruption and penetration by Israel.
The movement, created under Iran’s auspices and aid after Israel’s 1982 invasion, reflects the dynamic Shiite dimension of Islamist politics in the Arab world. Hezbollah was inspired by the teachings of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It subscribes to a doctrine known as the velayat-e faqih—or, in Arabic, the wali al-faqih—Khomeini’s theory of Islamic governance, which bestows guardianship of government on a senior religious scholar. Iran remains Hezbollah’s chief ideological, financial, and military supporter. Syria is also a close ally.
Hezbollah’s core ideological goals are resisting Israel, establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon, and offering obedience to Iran’s supreme leader. But Hezbollah has developed a keen sense of realpolitik that helped shape its political agenda and allowed it to sidestep challenges to its armed status. It long ago accepted, for example, that an Islamic state is not appropriate for Lebanon, and it has considered alternative systems of government.
Over three decades, Hezbollah's deepening political engagement has transformed it into the main representative of Lebanon’s Shiites, the largest of the country’s seventeen recognized sects. In turn, the movement now needs continued support of the community to ensure its own survival. Yet the interests of its constituents do not always correspond to the agenda of Iran’s leaders, to whom Hezbollah is ideologically beholden. Balancing these rival obligations is a paradox that Hezbollah is finding ever more difficult to reconcile.
Hezbollah emerged in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, but its genesis lay in the Shiite religious seminaries of Najaf in southern Iraq. In the 1960s and 1970s, Lebanese clerical students were influenced by leading Shiite ideologues such as Mohammed Baqr al Sadr and Ruhollah Khomeini. Sadr, a founder of the Party of the Islamic Call, or Hizb al Dawa al Islamiyya, promoted Islamic values as a counterweight to secularism and the leftist ideologies then attracting Arab youth. Khomeini achieved prominence with his doctrine of velayat-e faqih.
Lebanese students and teachers in Iraqi seminaries were forced to return home after President Saddam Hussein cracked down on the Shiite clerics in the late 1970s. Some then began to preach the ideas of Khomeini and Sadr to a domestic audience.
By the end of the 1970s, three developments helped create fertile ground for the eventual emergence of Hezbollah. One factor was the creation of Amal, the first strong Shiite movement. Amal’s founder was Musa Sadr, a charismatic Iranian-born cleric who tapped into rising anger among Shiites over their repression by other Lebanese sects, particularly Christians and Sunni Muslims. But in 1978, Sadr vanished during a trip to Libya. After his disappearance, Amal drifted in a more secular direction under new leadership, to the dismay of the movement’s Islamists.
The second event was Israel’s first invasion of Lebanon in 1978 in a bid to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Israel installed a security cordon along the border inside Lebanon, which was controlled by an Israeli-backed militia. It was the first time many southern Lebanese lived under occupation.
The third crucial event was the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the first modern theocracy replaced the dynastic rule that had prevailed in Iran for more than 2,500 years. The revolution had an electrifying effect on Lebanese Shiites in general and on the clerical followers of Khomeini in particular. Iranian leaders and Lebanese clerics held lengthy discussions about importing the revolution to Lebanon and building an armed anti-Israel movement. Among the Lebanese clerics were Sheikh Sobhi Tufayli, who later became Hezbollah’s first secretary general, and Abbas Musawi, a preacher from the Bekaa Valley village of Nabi Sheet. The idea was delayed by an Iranian power struggle and the beginning of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in 1980.
Then Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 to drive the PLO out of Lebanon. Iran immediately offered assistance, dispatching 5,000 Revolutionary Guards to Syria for deployment in Lebanon. But the main fighting soon ended, and most of the Iranians returned home. Aided by Syria, a smaller contingent of Iranians moved into the northern Bekaa Valley to begin mobilizing and recruiting Shiites into a new anti-Israel force that was the basis of what became Hezbollah.
By 1983, the nascent Hezbollah’s influence was seeping from the Bekaa Valley into Beirut’s Shiite suburbs and from there further south toward the front line of the Israeli occupation. By 1985, Israel, exhausted by the intensifying resistance campaign, withdrew to a security belt along the Lebanon-Israel border. Hezbollah—along with Amal and secular local resistance groups, which played smaller roles—had more success in pressuring Israel in two years than had the PLO in a decade. Hezbollah won additional support by providing social welfare services to lower-class Shiites.
In 1985, Hezbollah formally declared its existence in its “Open Letter,” a manifesto outlining its identity and agenda. The goals included driving Israeli forces from south Lebanon as a precursor to the destruction of the Jewish state and the liberation of Jerusalem. Hezbollah confirmed that it abided by the orders of “a single wise and just command” represented by Ayatollah Khomeini, the “rightly guided imam.”
Hezbollah also rejected Lebanon’s sectarian political system and instead advocated creation of an Islamic state. At the same time, the party was careful to emphasize that it did not wish to impose Islam as a religion on anyone and that other Lebanese should be free to pick their preferred system of governance.
In formally declaring its existence and goals, Hezbollah emerged from the shadows and demonstrated that it was not a fleeting aberration of the civil war but a force determined to endure.
First Phase: Underground
Hezbollah’s evolution falls into five distinct phases. The first was from 1982 to 1990 and coincided with the chaotic 1975–90 civil war, during which the Lebanese state had little control. Lebanon was instead carved into competing fiefdoms dominated by militias and occupying armies. These were Hezbollah’s wild days, when it could do as it pleased under Iran’s guidance and Syria’s watchful eye.
The movement became synonymous with extremist attacks, including two on U.S. embassies in 1983 and 1984. Its deadliest attacks were the simultaneous truck bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and the nearby French Paratroop headquarters, which killed 241 American servicemen and sixty-eight French soldiers. From 1984, more than 100 foreigners in Lebanon were kidnapped. Hezbollah denied responsibility, although some of its members were later linked with the attacks.
After 1986, Hezbollah dominated the resistance against Israel’s occupation in south Lebanon. But the party’s growing influence in the south also brought it into conflict with the rival Amal movement. In 1988, the two factions fought the first in a series of bloody internecine battles that over the next two years resulted in thousands of dead and generated an animosity that lingered a quarter-century later.
Second Phase: Running for Parliament
The second phase was from 1991 to 2000, following the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990. The restoration of state control sparked a debate within Hezbollah over its future course of action. Hardliners, represented by Sheikh Tufayli, argued that Hezbollah should not compromise its ideological agenda regardless of the nation’s changed circumstances. Others countered that Hezbollah had to adapt to the new situation to protect its “resistance priority”—the right to confront Israel’s continued occupation of the south.
The debate played out over whether Hezbollah should run in the 1992 parliamentary election, the first in twenty years. Joining parliament would strengthen Hezbollah’s standing in Lebanon, but it would also flout its 1985 manifesto that rejected a sectarian political system. Pragmatists won after receiving the blessing of Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran’s supreme leader, to participate in the elections. Hezbollah won eight parliamentary seats.
Hezbollah also went through a leadership change. A few months before the 1992 election, Hezbollah secretary general Sayyed Abbas Musawi was assassinated in an Israeli helicopter ambush. He was replaced by his protégé, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, a 32-year-old cleric.
Under Nasrallah, Hezbollah reorganized, adding new bodies to handle its military, political, and social work. It expanded its social welfare activities nationwide to sustain its popular support within the Shiite community. It also launched a television station, Al Manar, as the flagship of its propaganda arm, and opened a media relations office. Hezbollah even began a dialogue with other factions and religious representatives, including Christians.
Hezbollah’s newfound pragmatism did not represent an ideological softening or a decision to exchange Islamic militancy for a share of Lebanon’s political space. Hezbollah was instead adapting to postwar circumstances to safeguard the resistance. Shortly after the 1992 election, Nasrallah explained, “Our participation in the elections and entry into [parliament] do not alter the fact that we are a resistance party.”
Hezbollah’s resistance efforts actually intensified after 1992. Its hit-and-run guerrilla tactics claimed ever-higher Israeli casualties. In 1993 and 1996, Israel responded with air and artillery blitzes against Lebanon in failed attempts to dent Hezbollah’s campaign.
The late 1990s were Hezbollah’s “golden years.” Hezbollah’s military exploits won it admirers across the Arab and Islamic worlds and earned the respect of all Lebanese, even those inclined to view the Shiite party with suspicion. Under growing pressure from Hezbollah, Israel finally ended its occupation in May 2000, the first time that the Jewish state had ceded occupied territory through force of Arab arms.
Third Phase: Confrontation
The third phase was from 2000 to 2005. With Israel’s withdrawal, Hezbollah’s reputation had never been higher. But its victory was Pyrrhic. A growing number of Lebanese began questioning why Hezbollah needed to keep arms. Hezbollah countered by citing minor territorial disputes and the number of Lebanese still detained in Israeli prisons. It claimed its weapons were a vital part of Lebanon’s defense. Hezbollah had to make sure that the Israelis did not come back. Many Lebanese accused Hezbollah of serving an Iranian—rather than Lebanese—agenda. But Hezbollah still enjoyed the political cover afforded by Syria, which continued to endorse the party’s armed status.
In February 2005, Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated in a truck bomb explosion. Many Lebanese blamed Damascus, and roughly one-quarter of the country’s population took to the streets in protest. Three months later, Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon, ending three decades of military occupation.
The sudden loss of Syrian cover compelled Hezbollah to take another step deeper into Lebanese politics to defend its “resistance priority.” It agreed to an alliance with its longtime Amal rival and with the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party led by former General Michel Aoun.
After the 2005 parliamentary election, Hezbollah joined the government for the first time. Yet its participation did not defuse the core issue. Over the following months, Lebanese politics grew increasingly rancorous over Hezbollah’s arms. It was the single most divisive national issue.
Fourth Phase: War and Rebuilding
The fourth phase ran from 2006 to 2012 and included Hezbollah’s biggest military gamble. On July 12, 2006, its militia abducted two Israeli soldiers along the border. The audacious act triggered a devastating month-long war with Israel. Hezbollah fought the Israeli army to a standstill in south Lebanon and declared a “divine victory”—but at a high cost.
More than 1,100 Lebanese died in the war, which also caused billions of dollars of damage. In the face of intense domestic criticism, Hezbollah walked out of the Lebanese cabinet in November 2006. A month later, Hezbollah tried to force the government to resign by organizing a mass protest in central Beirut. The government stood its ground, but political paralysis gripped Lebanon.
Tensions between Hezbollah and the central government continued. In 2008, the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora—son of the slain leader—announced it intended to shut down Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network. Hezbollah reacted by staging a brief takeover of west Beirut, triggering a week of clashes that left more than 100 people dead and brought the country to the edge of civil war. The crisis ended with the formation of a new government and the long-delayed election of a president, Michel Suleiman.
In 2009, Lebanon faced a new crisis when a United Nations investigation obtained evidence implicating Hezbollah in the assassination of Rafik Hariri four years earlier. Hezbollah denied the allegations and claimed that the Dutch-based tribunal investigating the case was serving the political interests of the United States and Israel.
The Hariri government refused to abandon its support for the tribunal. In January 2011, as the tribunal was preparing to issue its first set of indictments, Hezbollah and its political allies forced a vote of no confidence in the government. The new government was composed of Hezbollah and its allies; it was led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a billionaire businessman and political moderate.
Fifth Phase: The Syria Intervention
The fifth phase began in response to turmoil in Syria. In March 2011, a popular uprising was launched against the Assad regime as the Arab Spring rippled across the Middle East. Hezbollah initially expected it to blow over quickly. But by the end of 2011, the uprising had morphed into a civil war. Within months, Hezbollah began covertly dispatching fighters to assist the Syrian army against nascent rebel groups.
In May 2013, Nasrallah admitted that Hezbollah was fully engaged in the Syria war. He argued that the Syrian opposition was composed of radical Sunni groups would take their war to Lebanon after defeating Assad. Many Lebanese were dismayed at the unprecedented military intervention; it breached the Baabda Declaration of 2012, when Lebanese leaders agreed to immunize Lebanon from the conflict tearing apart its larger neighbor.
Syria’s conflict spilled over into Lebanon too, deepening political tensions. It contributed to the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government in March 2013. Tammam Salam, scion of a notable Beirut family, was appointed prime minister in April 2013, but it took a tortuous ten months for him to form a cabinet. Lebanon faced another political stalemate when its parliament repeatedly failed to elect a new president after Suleiman’s term ended in May 2014. In November 2014, parliament then voted to extend its term for a second time, putting off elections for two years, seven months.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria enraged Sunnis across the region—and produced a backlash. In 2013 and 2014, Sunni radical groups carried out more than a dozen car bombings, most of them suicide attacks, in Shiite areas of Lebanon. Almost 100 people were killed, some 900 were wounded. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other brutal Sunni militias dampened some of the criticism directed at Hezbollah. Shiites and some other Lebanese minorities viewed the party as a protector against Sunni extremists.
Still, by 2015 the rate of Hezbollah casualties was the highest in the party’s history--with no end to the Syrian war in sight. The looming question was how long Hezbollah could afford to remain so heavily engaged in Syria.
Iran was Hezbollah’s main financial, military, and logistical supplier, and Iran’s supreme leader was the party’s ultimate source of authority. Under the late President Hafez al Assad, Syria was Hezbollah’s protector and supervisor. Since Assad’s son Bashar al Assad took over in 2000, Syria became an even closer strategic ally. Syria was the vital geostrategic linchpin connecting Iran to Hezbollah. It provided strategic depth and a conduit for the transfer of arms, which explained the heavy effort by Iran and Hezbollah to preserve Assad’s regime.
The Palestinian Hamas movement and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have been allies of Hezbollah since the early 1990s. Both groups benefited from Iranian financial and material patronage. But Hamas, a Sunni movement, did not share the Shiite ideology of Iran and Hezbollah, making Hamas and Hezbollah uncomfortable bedfellows beyond a shared hostility toward Israel.
Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement, both secular Lebanese political entities, have been allied with Hezbollah since 2005 and 2006, respectively. Hezbollah also maintained alliances with smaller pro-Syrian factions and individuals, Islamist groups, and Palestinian groups.
As of early 2015, Hezbollah was arguably the most formidable non-state military actor in the world. It was also the most powerful political force in Lebanon through the force majeure of its armed wing. It had two seats in Salam’s government.
Yet down the road, Hezbollah also faces grave challenges that derive from its sometimes conflicting roles as Iran’s surrogate and, at the same time, the chief representative of Lebanon’s Shiites. Iran has helped transform Hezbollah into a robust and unique military force that serves as a component of Iranian deterrence. Hezbollah is also, however, answerable to the needs and interests of its domestic constituency. The paradox is increasingly hard to reconcile, as shown by Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syria war.
By 2015, Hezbollah’s public standing had also declined somewhat since the heady days of the 1990s. Hezbollah’s refusal to disarm was at the heart of Lebanon’s festering political divide. Over the years, Hezbollah has been sucked ever deeper into the political mire. It considered its shift into the fractious world of Lebanese politics an unfortunate necessity to better defend its “resistance priority.”
The Arab Spring presented another set of difficulties for Hezbollah. It supported uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but it was caught off guard by the nationwide Syrian protests. Its belated intervention in Syria to aid the Assad regime eroded the party’s popularity among Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the Syrian opposition, and in the Arab world as the regional tensions increased between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia.
Internally, Hezbollah is grappling with the new – and insidious – threat of corruption. Hezbollah has grown extensively since 2006, militarily, financially and politically, which has resulted in a sprawling bureaucracy with looser internal control mechanisms and a reduced sense of personal security among the cadres compared to two decades ago. That has opened the door not only to embezzlement and theft within the party but also made it vulnerable to penetration by Israeli intelligence agencies. Hezbollah has amassed armaments, communications technology and combat capabilities that pose a genuine challenge to Israel in the event of a future war. But the emergence of corrupt practices and the evident difficulty the party’s leadership has in curbing the phenomenon represents the single gravest danger to Hezbollah in the long-term.
For now, however, Hezbollah will remain a powerful political player on the Lebanese scene for the foreseeable future regardless of developments in Syria. But the challenge for Hezbollah of balancing its ideological and logistical obligations to Iran and its political and social duties to Lebanon’s Shiite community is a paradox that will only grow more difficult in the years ahead.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and a defense and security analyst for IHS-Jane’s. He is the author of Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East (2006) and Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle against Israel (2011).
This article is an excerpt from "The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are." Click here for the full article.
Photo credits: Nasrallah via leader.ir; Khamenei and Khoemeini via Khamenei.ir; Hezbollah logo via Wikimedia Commons