by Tally Helfont*
March 2, 2016 was the day that (finally!) heralded official recognition of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization by an important bloc of countries in the Arab World. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman—announced their decision to designate the Shi‘i Lebanese Militia a terrorist group based on Hezbollah’s engagement in “hostile acts” throughout the region and its endangerment of “Arab national security” through arms smuggling, inciting violence, and recruiting terrorists. While the momentum for this decision had been building for some time, it can still be understood as an escalation of the regional rivalry between the Sunni Arab monarchies and their arch-nemesis—Shi‘a Iran.
But the real question remains, what took so long for Hezbollah to be revealed as the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing that it has always been? The answers lie in the perfect storm that has emerged in the post-Arab uprisings period in which Iran’s expansive, destabilizing ambitions have gone too far to remain uncontested by the Arab World; Hezbollah pretense of championing the Palestinian cause has been revealed to be a farce; and chaos in the streets from Tunis to Sanaa have led Arab regimes to renew their emphasis on security, and to clamp down on terrorists of all stripes and their funders.
There was a time in the Middle East and North Africa that Hezbollah enjoyed approval ratings in the high nineties, and its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was seen as Batal al-‘Alam al-‘Arabi (a hero of the Arab World) alongside Saddam Hussein and others. In fact, the organization enjoyed this status as recently as 2006 in the immediate aftermath of its war with Israel. So what happened? It finally became clear to the majority of the Arab World that Hezbollah was not an indigenous socio-political resistance movement dedicated to fighting Israel—a cause that most of the region could rally behind for much of the 20th century—but rather a dangerous Iranian puppet whose ideology, training, funding, materiel, and direction were coming directly from Tehran. Now while the Gulf Monarchies seem to be acutely aware of this reality in light of their ongoing proxy-war with Iran, it has in fact always been apparent.
Hezbollah’s 1985 manifesto very clearly pledged loyalty to then Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini , and urged the creation of a greater Islamic State governed by Imam Khomeini, in keeping with his idea of wilayat al-faqih (authority of the jurist-theologian). These sentiments were regularly echoed by Nasrallah himself as early as his undated speech from the late eighties prior to assuming his position as Secretary General of Hezbollah, and as recently as his televised speech at the 2015 Second Annual Conference of Renovation and Intellectual Jurisprudence of Imam Khamenei. Iran has been directing Hezbollah toward these aims since the beginning. For example, during the Fourth Conference on Islamic Thought in Tehran in 1986, several key meetings were held between the Lebanese and Iranian clerics to work on a constitution for the so-called Islamic Republic of Lebanon, modeled on the Iranian constitution. This republic, had it emerged, would have retained local authority, but would ultimately be answerable to Tehran.
In the decades since the group’s establishment, much has been revealed about its foundation, modus operandi, and its links to Iran. From its adoption of a Pasdaran-style structural model, encompassing a militia, social support, cultural activities, and economic power; to its initial military training by the Pasdaran in Baalbek, later superseded by training in Iran-proper ; to its decades-long weapons transfers and funding by Tehran to the tune of $200 million per annum, according to U.S. Pentagon estimates.
However much of the smoke and mirrors around Hezbollah’s raison d’être has to do the perceived legitimacy (by much of the Arab World) of its propaganda and its activities against the State of Israel, as well as the organic nature of its pre-foundational alliance with Palestinian refugees in the country in the late seventies and early eighties. Israel’s 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon to expel the PLO had the unintended consequence of helping to galvanize those disenfranchised Lebanese Shi‘is who had allied with their fellow disenfranchised Palestinians to take up arms against this latest occupier. Hezbollah’s manifesto reflects this enmity that emerged in the aftermath of Israel’s invasion and lays out its enemies quite clearly:
We see in Israel the vanguard of the United States in our Islamic world. It is the hated enemy that must be fought until the hated ones get what they deserve. This enemy is the greatest danger to our future generations and to the destiny of our lands, particularly as it glorifies the ideas of settlement and expansion, initiated in Palestine, and yearning outward to the extension of Greater Israel, from the Euphrates to the Nile. Our primary assumption in our fight against Israel states that the Zionist entity is aggressive from its inception, and built on lands wrested from their owners, at the expense of the rights of the Muslim people. Therefore our struggle will end only when this entity is obliterated.
As evidenced by this excerpt, Hezbollah has carefully crafted an image of a Lebanese resistance group bent on erasing Israel from the map since its inception. However, as can only be seen when looking at the long arc of Hezbollah’s activity over the years, this mandate is neither local nor indigenous. Despite the fact that Hezbollah’s ranks came together organically from among Lebanon’s disenfranchised Shi‘i population and that they had maintained legitimate sympathies for their Palestinian compatriots, it remains indisputable that shortly after its foundation Hezbollah became wholly a creature of Iran. What’s more, Hezbollah’s violence against Israel and its interests represent but a fraction of its terrorist activities. As Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen from the U.S. Treasury Department said at an August 2012 Briefing on the Designation of Hezbollah for Supporting the Syrian Regime:
Before al-Qaida’s attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, Hezbollah was responsible for killing more Americans in terrorist attacks than any other terrorist group. Hezbollah started out carrying out bombings and kidnappings in Lebanon but quickly expanded its violent campaign on to a global stage, carrying out and supporting terrorist attacks in South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and various countries in the Middle East. More recently we have seen the group’s plotting disrupted in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Thailand, and Cyprus.
In fact, the scope of its global terror was documented in a 2013 book by Matt Levitt titled Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, where he illustrates how the group has sown violence across the globe for more than three decades. It is worth noting that this is an agenda that bears much greater relation to Iran’s international ambitions than one that is limited to Israel. Of course when looking at Hezbollah’s terrorism, one needs to look no further than Lebanon itself, which has arguably suffered the most from the group’s destabilizing activities.
Even the Palestinian angle and the so-called championing of their cause came from Khomeini in Iran. Though it may not have seemed significant at the time, the first foreign dignitary that Ayatollah Khomeini received in newly established revolutionary Iran was Yasser Arafat. The struggle against the big Satan and the little Satan—the United States and Israel respectively—was a key priority for the late Supreme Leader, as it would be for his proxies. And as time has shown—particularly in the Syrian arena as of late, where Hezbollah fighters are getting their marching orders from Tehran to prop up Bashar al-Assad to the detriment of Syrians as well as countless Palestinians in Syria’s Yarmouk Camp (to name one example)—Hezbollah has simply instrumentalized the Palestinian cause to distract from its other activities and ambitions.
Hezbollah’s terrorism in the MENA region itself at the bidding of Iran only started getting significant attention from leaders of Arab States in the last decade or so as their proxy war with Iran heated up. However, in the post-Arab uprising period, where Gulf monarchies are working in concert to establish stability and stem terrorism, Hezbollah’s recent activities seemed to have finally crossed a line. These provocations include, as Fikra Forum’s David Pollak nicely summarized: Hezbollah’s active military aid for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, support for the Shiite Houthi opposition in Yemen, close ties with GCC arch-rival Iran, and reported involvement with terrorism, subversion, and espionage inside most GCC countries.
In fact, the Saudis ire with the group is so great that they are going well beyond just designating Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Since May 2015, the Saudis have been sanctioning Lebanese nationals and Lebanese companies allegedly linked to Hezbollah and engaged in weapons procurement. In February of 2016, Riyadh suspended $4 billion in security assistance to Beirut, and announced soon after that it will be conducting a “comprehensive review of its relations with the Lebanese Republic.” Some have argued that the Kingdom’s anti-terrorism agenda as it pertains to Lebanon is meant to pressure other elements within to country to work toward loosening Hezbollah’s stranglehold over the country—though considering the group has the backing of Iran, that seems easier said than done.
During a televised speech in March 2016, Hassan Nasrallah addressed these developments in a predictable manner, lashing out against the Saudis. Claiming that Saudi sanctioning of Hezbollah was retaliatory in nature, Nasrallah said: “The (Saudi) Kingdom is trying to put pressure on the Lebanese to try to silence us but we will not be silent on the crimes the Saudis are committing in Yemen and elsewhere.” In short, according to Nasrallah, the Saudis were punishing the Lebanese as a whole because Hezbollah spoke out against the Kingdom’s campaign in Yemen. In a similarly predictable fashion, Hezbollah’s media outlet al-Manar ran an article following the announcement of Hezbollah’s terrorist designation that tried to tarnish the Kingdom by essentially saying that it was coordinating all of its activities with Israel – the little Satan.
These feeble attempts are, at this point, in vain. The cat is out of the bag. At long last, Hezbollah is being recognized as the terror organization it is; it is being seen as the Iranian puppet it is; it is being seen as a group that does not recognize the legitimacy of nation-states—whether it be Israel’s Lebanon’s, or Syria’s; and finally, it is being seen as a group that is dangerous to the Arab World.
The implications of these realizations go far beyond the case of Hezbollah and speak to the larger problem of supporting militias throughout the region that one day fight your shared enemy, and the next day turn on you. Hezbollah was a terrorist group when it targeted Israelis and Westerners; it is a terrorist group now when it targets Lebanese and Syrians. The same could be said of many other groups operating today. Middle Eastern regimes and their citizens should treat the Hezbollah case as a cautionary tale if there is to be any hope of peace and security in the region for future generations.
*Tally Helfont is the Director of Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East. Her current research focuses on regional balance of power, the Levant and the GCC, and U.S. policy therein. She is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Middle East Desk, a crowd-sourcing consultancy.