As Iran celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah extolled the country’s achievements at an impassioned rally in Beirut on Wednesday night, regaling his faithful with the decades-long story of the strong bond between the powerful Lebanese Shiite party and its patron and creator.
“There is no doubt that today, Iran is one of the most influential countries in the region," said Mr Nasrallah.
“We fought for years. Our weapons, our ammunition, our money, our support, our bread, our medicine, our sick, our wounded, our martyrs – [through] all this, the Islamic Republic stood by our side," he said. He appeared to be referring to Hezbollah’s military support of Bashar Al Assad’s regime through the Syrian civil war which has enabled the group to become one of the region’s most powerful paramilitary forces.
This military strength, coupled with genuine popularity among Lebanese Shiites, has enabled Hezbollah to exercise an “effective veto” on any Lebanese government policy it opposes, Jeffrey Feltman, the US ambassador to Lebanon from 2004 to 2008, wrote in a recent Brookings Institution column.
Despite American warnings to the western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Hezbollah was awarded three ministries for the first time in the latest Lebanese government – including the ministry of health which has one of the biggest budgets. The US considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist organisation.
None of this could have happened without Iran’s unwavering financial and logistical support since Hezbollah’s inception in the early 1980s during the Lebanese civil war.
“As Lebanese factions, Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians, and various proxy powers destroyed the country, the ground was fertile for Iran’s post-1979 revolutionary leaders to demonstrate that their example could be replicated in the Arab world, by exploiting long-standing grievances of Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim underclass," Mr Feltman wrote.
Hezbollah gained popularity by resisting the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, a claim to fame which enabled it to maintain an armed militia despite the civil war ending in 1990 and all other factions handing in their arms. By surviving an all-out war against Israel in the summer of 2006 – despite incurring heavy losses – Hezbollah became a force to be reckoned with in the region. This allows Iran to directly threaten Israel, a considerable advantage for the Islamic Republic in its quest to be recognised as a regional leader.
"Leadership in the Arab world is historically and emotionally tied to the Palestinian cause, and that's especially important for Iran as a non-Arabic speaking country," Hezbollah expert Waddah Charara told The National. In his latest speech, Mr Nasrallah reiterated Hezbollah's support for Iran should it be attacked by the US, suggesting the group is ready for a second war with Israel.
In recent years, Hezbollah fighters have also proved useful in expanding Iran’s influence in Syria and Iraq, two countries weakened by years of internal turmoil. Since US President Donald Trump announced in December that American forces would withdraw from Syria, Iran is poised take a step towards what the media has dubbed a “land bridge” that stretches from Tehran to Beirut on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
As symbolic as this may be, Mr Charara argues that Iran will continue operating under the radar. “Even if the US withdrew from its strategically located Al Tanf base on the border between Syria, Iraq and Jordan, there’s no way Iran would suddenly start exporting weapons in plain view.
“They would still be afraid of convoys being shelled on the road. In addition to this, several local groups, such as the Kurds, oppose Iranian hegemony in the region," Mr Charara said.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s association with Iran is regularly criticised by its opponents who argue that the group is purely a vehicle for Tehran’s policy in the country. Beirut is a capital where several countries – Syria, the US and Saudi Arabia – all jockey for influence.
As a result, Hezbollah politics can resemble walking a tightrope. The group insists on its Lebanese identity, which includes negotiating with other religious groups, while also recognising that its final objective is to implant the Iranian model of “wilayat al faqih” – a political system which concentrates power in the hands of a small group of Shia clerics – in Lebanon.
Wilayat al faqih is synonymous with “the rule of law, the constitution, and popular sovereignty”, said Mr Nasrallah in his latest speech.
“They have always gone back and forth between satisfying the pasdaran [the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] on one hand and doing their best to not to scare away the Lebanese Christian and Sunni communities on the other," said Mr Charara. Hezbollah even formed a strong political alliance with Christian Lebanese President Michel Aoun in 2006, in order to claim broader support than just the Shiite base.
“Iran knows that exporting its model is a slow process of covert infiltration which only shows itself at strategic moments. It’s not over yet in Lebanon," Mr Charara warned.
As the new Lebanese government focuses on reforming the country’s ailing economy by seeking help from the West, Hezbollah has tried to increase Iranian influence by encouraging Iranian investments in parallel.
In his latest speech, Mr Nasrallah called for Iran to invest in Lebanese infrastructure, especially in the electricity sector, which is the new cabinet’s main challenge. Electricity cuts, sometimes 12 hours long, have plagued the country since the end of the civil war.
Such an invitation implicitly challenges the government’s massive new investment plan of $17 billion over the next 8 years for which most of the funds have already been secured.
Last April, the international community – not including Iran – pledged nearly $11bn in loans and Lebanon hopes to secure an additional $6bn in private investments.
“Iran is ready” to help Lebanon for 'very low prices', Mr Nasrallah said in his speech. “Does the Lebanese government dare to accept?" he taunted.
Should Iran invest massively in Lebanon, Hezbollah would likely be involved in managing the funds. This would, in turn, lead to tensions with Lebanon’s other financial backers that are very much opposed to Iran further expanding its influence in the region.
It also overlooks a major issue in Tehran – what President Hassan Rouhani called the toughest economic environment since the 1979 revolution.