The growth of Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Party of God) has gained considerable impetus through its patron Iran’s own desire to dominate strategically the entire Middle East region. Hezbollah fits in neatly with Tehran’s effort to reinstate the Persian preeminence in the ancient world reaching back centuries.
Ironically this is the same vision held by the late Shah Reza Pahlevi. His imperial objective was clear and for that reason feared by the kingdoms of the Gulf. With more than a little American encouragement, the deeply egocentric Shah more than once indicated he viewed himself as directly descended from the ancient kings of Persia.
Today’s Shia clerical leadership sees the organization of Hezbollah as an international mechanism that acts in accordance with Iran’s broader ambitions even while evolving as the dominating political force in its home country of Lebanon. The arrival in 1982 of one to two thousand Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) volunteers from Iran provided the cadre around whom Hezbollah’s military capability would be built during the Lebanese civil war. The Iranian veterans of this expedition became the core of the elite special operations unit, Quds Force.
The previous Shia militia element, Amal, was first marginalized then subsumed by the formal establishment of Hezbollah in 1985. Along with the military assistance of the IRGC came the political sophistication of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MIS), and Hezbollah was on its way to becoming an international instrument of Iranian ambitions. This fraternal relationship has matured over the years into a potent paramilitary force with a broad international outreach.
It is at this point that the strictly Lebanese Shia phenomenon begins to become more diffuse. Shia Islam as a faith is quite willing to work in areas of mutual interest with its Sunni brethren, among others. Iran’s support of Hamas is a strong example. The Shia, with their ever-expedient political consciousness, will work with and even co-opt other religious and secular instruments. The result of this “cooperation-where-convenient” is the ability to substantially broaden foreign access.
In consequence of Iranian intelligence assistance and the traditional inclination of the Shia to work with a broad spectrum of the spiritual and secular world, a large eclectic net of Hezbollah-friendly alliances has grown around the world. The Lebanese Hezbollah nets have become useful cutout and cover instruments of Iranian covert operations with political, military and economic objectives. Naturally Hezbollah’s own proprietary interests are also served. What is fascinating and potentially dangerous is the character of the activities that support this international operation.
For many decades poor Lebanese Shia families financed a chosen member to go abroad and start up or work in local small business. All manner of retail activities have been involved. Hundreds of these mostly small, but sometimes sizeable, businesses in out of the way places often provided the only general merchandise and banking outlets available in the developing world communities. Of the money that was made a portion always was sent home. Greeks, Syrians, Pakistanis and Indians did the same thing. But the Lebanese were always quick to work their way into the fabric of local politics. The Shia, as Shia are, were the most committed in that regard.
As a result there exists a ready-made structure of economic and political support in what is a carefully cultivated Lebanese Shia diaspora. It was among these far flung Lebanese Shia brethren that the Hezbollah foreign operations began. And it was through these members of the Party of God that Iranian intelligence operations spread its own net. It is financially remunerative for the local Lebanese traders and operationally invaluable for Hezbollah and its Persian big brothers.
Reports have swirled about this summer of Hezbollah involvement in international narcotics trafficking. A story appeared of a certain Ali Jamil Nasser who supposedly was caught in Tijuana, Mexico, organizing a Hezbollah-guided network of border crossers. The source of the information turned out to be an Arabic newspaper in Kuwait, al-Seyassah, and a follow-up piece in the Israeli publication, Haaretz. It was a fast moving story until Fox News and Arizona Republic fact checkers, with the aid of the office of the Mexican Attorney General, proved the entire story to have been fabricated. It would appear that someone thought the best defense would be a good offense!
The real danger of Hezbollah operating abroad is the potential of its involvement in terrorism — as opposed to gathering economic and political information and influence. High profile terror attacks might have a powerful impact among the mass of supporters back home, but such deadly operations that could be attributed to Lebanese Shia would be politically counterproductive.
Avoiding classic terrorist tactics abroad, but using financial and political leverage to gain useful tactical objectives, appears the most efficacious use of Hezbollah assets outside the Middle East. Unfortunately, logic does not always rule decision-making among jihadi. No matter how they pursue the future, Hezbollah has grown not only into a powerful force in itself but also a conduit for even more destructive Iranian ambitions of Persian imperial revival.