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Will Iran's political turmoil shake Hezbollah?

The Shiite militant organization in Lebanon draws money and ideological guidance from Iran's supreme leader.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 2009

Protesters gather Friday in Tehran in this image obtained from Gooya News. In apparent defiance of Iran's supreme leader, a powerful cleric declared his country in crisis after a disputed poll, and tens of thousands of protesters used Friday prayers to stage the biggest show of dissent for weeks.

Farhad Rajabali/Gooya News/REUTERS


Beirut, Lebanon

The political turmoil that has shaken Iran following its disputed presidential election last month is being keenly observed by Lebanon's militant Shiite Hezbollah, which takes many of its cues – earthly and spiritual – from the Islamic Republic.

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Hezbollah is the only organization outside Iran that subscribes to that nation's ideology of theocratic leadership. The group was founded with Iranian help, still receives Iranian funding, and has at times turned to Iran's supreme leader for guidance on major political issues. Therefore, the outcome of current debates there over the way theocratic authority is wielded and the secular question of how Iran should manage its external relations is sure to reverberate inside Lebanon.

"Those who argue that this is only a disagreement between revolutionary elites are patently wrong," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Even ... a former senior Revolutionary Guard commander claimed that over 3 million people demonstrated in Tehran."

On Sunday, former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami called for a referendum on the current government's "legitimacy." Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the senior figure in the theocracy, vowed Monday that elites seeking change would be treated as "hated" people if they didn't back down. Analysts took that to mean some reformers could be treated as enemies of the state.

Hezbollah No. 2: We look to supreme leader for guidance

Despite the drama in Iran and the close ties to Hezbollah, which dreams of building a state on the Iranian model, the militant group's second-in-command insisted in an interview with the Monitor that events in Tehran will have little impact on his organization.

"The disagreements between the parties in Iran are affairs that concern essentially the Iranians," says Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy secretary-general. "There will always be different points of view. This is normal and natural."

Yet he also acknowledges that Hezbollah looks to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's hard-line supreme leader, for general political and ideological guidance, which would imply that change at the top in Iran would have some impact on his organization.

"The [supreme leader] is the leader as far as we are concerned," says Sheikh Qassem. "He gives us these [religious] rules and [sets the guidelines for] our general political performance," says the white-turbaned cleric, sitting in a room with two pictures of Khamenei and his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini hanging on the wall. "He does not interfere in details."