Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

A Stable Structure on Shifting Sands: Assessing the Hizbullah-Iran-Syria Relationship

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

A Stable Structure on Shifting Sands: Assessing the Hizbullah-Iran-Syria Relationship

Article excerpt

Iran and Syria were instrumental in the creation of Lebanese Hizbullah 25 years ago, and although all three actors have faced significant outside pressures during that time, their relationship has endured. Yet the relationship has evolved, too, with Hizbullah now a major player in Lebanese politics due to its constituent outreach and its maintenance of a militia that rivals the national army. This article examines the evolutionary process and assesses its implications for policymakers.

Israeli and American officials expressed a great deal of concern over Iranian and Syr?ian assistance to Lebanese Hizbullah during its Summer 2006 war with Israel. There were not only allegations that Tehran was supplying Hizbullah - which the US gov?ernment classifies as a foreign terrorist organization - with weapons and other military supplies, there also were claims that Iranian personnel were fighting on Hizbullah's behalf. There were even accusations that Tehran directed Hizbullah to act in order to distract attention from its suspicious nuclear program. There was little publicly avail?able evidence to support such allegations: Hizbullah denied that it was acting on any but its own behalf, and Tehran and Damascus also rejected the accusations.

However, the accusations persisted after the war. A top US State Department official testified before Congress in April 2007: "Hizbullah and its allies, with sup?port from Syria and Iran, have mounted a growing campaign to overthrow Lebanon's legitimate, elected Government." 1 The official went on to say that this campaign has "effectively paralyzed the Lebanese Government and is further eroding the Lebanese economy." In an apparent reference to the bloody civil war that began in 1975 and continued for some 15 years, he warned of "growing concerns about a return of civil conflict."

Many Lebanese political figures have voiced similar concerns over the years, but Hizbullah consistently has denied that it is an instrument of Iranian or Syrian policy. Indeed, categorization of Hizbullah is not straightforward - in its two-and-a-half de?cade existence Hizbullah has gone from being a marginalized group of radicals to hav?ing members serve in the cabinet and the legislature, while simultaneously maintaining an armed militia. Yet Hizbullah could not have reached its current level of significance without the support of Iran and Syria, and the July 2007 meeting in Damascus between Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah demonstrates that strong ties continue to exist. 2

This article analyzes the relationship among Hizbullah, Iran, and Syria, and it examines the roles of Tehran and Damascus in the Lebanese organization's decision making and actions. The research reveals strong military and financial ties, as well as ideological and political connections, which appear to preclude any sort of serious or lasting break in the relationship. Nevertheless, the relationship among the three actors has evolved and it is not accurate to describe Hizbullah as an Iranian or Syrian proxy. Indeed, it would be more useful to consider Hizbullah as an autonomous actor in the Lebanese context and shape US policy accordingly. Internationally, Hizbullah worked closely with Iran for many years, but it is far from clear if this is still the case, even though they appear to have shared interests in some circumstances. In terms of sources, this article relies on Iranian, Lebanese, Syrian, and other regional broadcast and print media, statements from leaders of Hizbullah, Iran, and Syria, and the work of Middle East scholars. 3


With the exception of some powerful and wealthy families, Shi'a Muslims tradi?tionally made up the Lebanese underclass. This marginalization was cemented into law with the founding of the Lebanese state in 1943 and the implementation of the confes?sional system in which the Shi'a were guaranteed the third most important political office - the speaker of parliament - after the presidency (which went to a Maronite Christian) and the premiership (a Sunni Muslim). …

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