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When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of Iran’s presidential election earlier this week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was quick to congratulate him.
“Bless you this precious public confidence and this great love expressed by the Iranian people through re-electing you for a second term," Nasrallah told Ahmadinejad in a letter, according to the Lebanese newspaper Al Nahar. "I assure you that your re-election represents a great hope for all the oppressed people, the Mujahideen, the fighters, the resistance and those who reject superpowers and occupiers.”
But, after massive protests in Tehran began to challenge the legitimacy of the vote, Hezbollah stayed very quiet.
The group’s satellite TV station has largely toed the Iranian government line on the election dispute. The Iran page on the station’s website shows a cautious following of events: the site basically reports what Iran’s national news agency is reporting, and focuses on the actions of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran has long had links to Lebanon. The country’s Shiite clerics have for centuries traveled to the Iranian city of Qom for religious education. Families have intermarried and moved back and forth. But it was the Islamic revolution in 1979 that created the bonds found today between the two countries.
Iran’s revolution came to Lebanon soon after it was established; in the early 1980s, the war-ravaged Mediterranean country was open to foreign money, weapons and training — especially Lebanon’s largely rural Shiite population. They had suffered from Israeli attacks on the Palestine Liberation Organization, which controlled South Lebanon since the early 1970’s. In a country of militias defined by their different religions, the Shiites, who make up an estimated 30 to 40 percent of Lebanon’s population, needed an army of their own. Iran was ready to help them.
In the early 1980’s, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) sent operatives to Lebanon’s Bekka valley to train Shiite militiamen (see photo above for the similarities between the organizations' flags). The training eventually gave birth to Hezbollah. The group issued a manifesto in 1985, calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon, and pledged its allegiance to Iran's supreme leader. Hezbollah eventually grew into a popular force that provided both social services and fought to free southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation, eventually forcing the Israeli army to withdraw in 2000.
Iran still supports Hezbollah to this day, donating millions of dollars annually for weapons, social services, road repairs and reconstruction money to Lebanon’s Shiite dominated south and Bekka Valley regions. Posters and cardboard cutouts of the founder of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, can be found throughout those regions, and in the Hezbollah dominated southern suburbs of Beirut.
Although Hezbollah is a Lebanese political party and militia, it also views itself as part of a wider ideological grouping that, along with Syria, Iran and Hamas, opposes Israel and the U.S. For example, the Hezbollah flag, in Arabic, says: “The Islamic Resistance in Lebanon,” not, “The Lebanese Islamic Resistance.”
It is that broader regional agenda that makes Hezbollah’s relationship with Iran a major source of friction in Lebanon. The Lebanese public is largely split down the middle when it comes to opinions on Hezbollah’s stockpile of weapons, the group’s militia, and its consequent ability to start a war with Israel without consent from the Lebanese government, or the country's other groups.
After Hezbollah and their allies were defeated by a U.S. and Saudi backed coalition two weeks ago in Lebanon’s elections (although the Hezbollah coalition did win the popular vote), and this week’s events in Tehran, some staunch opponents of Hezbollah took the opportunity to congratulate Lebanon for avoiding a situation that would have allowed Hezbollah to consolidate its current veto power over any Lebanese government decision into domination of the state.
“With the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acting with great brutality to impose a doubtful election victory, we can legitimately ask… whether Hizbullah would not have used a win of its own to place a similar headlock on the Lebanese political system in the future,” wrote Michael Young, the opinion editor at Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, in an editorial on June 18.
“In that way, the party could have used its authority to predetermine the outcomes in next year's municipal elections and the 2013 parliamentary elections to guarantee a lasting majority for itself and its allies,” Young wrote.
Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir warned before Lebanon’s elections that a win by Hezbollah’s coalition would have jeopardized the “Arab” identity of Lebanon – perhaps hinting that Hezbollah and its constituents are not Arab, but Persian.
Hezbollah leader Nasrallah attacked the Patriarch’s comments last week. And despite the fact the group has never rescinded its original goal of establishing an Islamic republic in Lebanon, the party has gone to great pains to say it adheres to the Lebanese system of consensual government between the country's 18 differnet recognized religious sects.
Its enemies used the Islamic republic goal as a weapon against the group in the elections two weeks ago — and it was an often heard justification for not voting for the group's coalition, especially among Christians. Nasrallah says the accusations are baloney.
Others aren’t so sure. The scene of a semi-official militia beating up students in the streets of Tehran doesn’t help to assuage fears among some Lebanese that this is the behavior Hezbollah would imitate if it were to come to power.
But an important aspect of the events in Tehran is what it shows about such seemingly unified institutions as the Islamic Republic’s government and Hezbollah. It is obvious that the political class in Iran is composed of a variety of different players, despite them all being supportive of the principles of the revolution.
“On foreign affairs related to the Arab world, Iraq, and Lebanon, [Mousavi] has very similar views to those of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his two predecessors, Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani,” wrote Syrian political analyst Sami Moubayed in Gulf News last week. “Let us not forget that all three presidents were committed to Hezbollah.”
But if Iran has this much disagreement within the status quo, it makes one wonder what kind of internal dialogue is going on inside Hezbollah, and how much the cleavages in Iran are at play in the Islamic Republic’s little brother here in Lebanon. So far, the Party of God is playing it very cool. As one analyst put it, “they don’t want to be seen as taking sides. They stay very close to the Supreme Leader because, in the end, it’s his opinion that counts.”
Hezbollah, of course, would never admit to internal cleavages. But it will be interesting to see what various members of the party say about the topic in the coming weeks, especially if conflict in Iran continues to intensify.