Will Iran's political turmoil shake Hezbollah?

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

Farhad Rajabali/Gooya News/REUTERS
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.

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.

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."

Ideology of supreme authority

The indissoluble thread that binds Hezbollah to Iran is the wilayet al-faqih (velayat-e-faqih in Persian) – the guardianship of the jurisprudent – which forms the ideological bedrock of Iran's Islamic state. The concept of the wilayet al-faqih originated with Ayatollah Khomeini, father of Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979. Khomeini's theory grants absolute authority over all matters – religious, social, and political – to a senior cleric chosen as the supreme leader. The supreme leader is regarded as an infallible source of emulation by some Shiite Muslims. Khomeini was the first, and Khamenei his successor.

The ideology of wilayet al-faqih is seen as a temporary measure pending the return of Imam Mehdi, who disappeared 1,000 years ago and was the last of 12 successors, recognized by Shiites, to the prophet Muhammad. His return, many pious Shiites believe, will usher in an era of perfect justice and global Islamic government.

Because the wilayet al-faqih is a relatively new concept, all fresh recruits to Hezbollah pass through a preparatory stage in which they are taught the tenets of the theory along with lessons in religion, politics, cultural, and social issues, as well as military training. The idea is to maintain ideological commitment.

Key decisions directly influenced by supreme leader

An example of the influence held by the supreme leader extends back to Hezbollah's founding in 1982, which came after Khomeini declared armed resistance to Israel's occupation of Lebanon a religious duty.

At the end of the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon, a heated debate erupted inside Hezbollah over whether to submit candidates for the 1992 parliamentary elections or to maintain its ideological rejection of Lebanon's sectarian political system. Unable to reach internal consensus, Hezbollah sought Khameini's advice and he decreed integration into Lebanese politics. Since then, Hezbollah has become an important player in the Lebanese parliament.

"To participate [in parliament] or not to participate? The decision was to participate," Sheikh Qassem says. "Accept the occupation [by Israel in 1982] or resist the occupation and liberate the land? And the decision was to liberate the land."

Khomeini's ideas inspired a generation of young Lebanese Shiite clerical students in the 1970s who became the leaders of Hezbollah after it was established with Iranian assistance in 1982 in the wake of Israel's invasion of Lebanon. The connection to Iran is evident in Hezbollah-supporting areas of Lebanon. Posters of Khomeini and Khameini hang alongside portraits of Hezbollah "martyrs," fighters killed resisting Israel.

"We believe in the leadership of the [supreme leader]," Qassem says. "This is a religious issue as far as we are concerned. All those who want to be part of Hezbollah have to commit themselves to its [doctrinal] code, and wilayet al-faqih is part of this."

Those that disagree with the theory are free to leave after the preparatory stage, while those who are convinced, like Jassem, a veteran Hezbollah fighter, become a member of the organization.

"The jurisprudent will stay in Iran and will only be canceled when Imam Mehdi returns," says Jassem. "We believe that and we will fight for that."

Hezbollah 'cashing checks' from Iran

Hezbollah receives substantial funding from Iranian religious endowments, known as Bonyads, which are controlled by Khamenei, according to Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese expert on Hezbollah and author of a forthcoming book on Iran's relations with Syria, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Hamas movement. Hezbollah refuses to discuss the amount of funding it receives from Iran, although it is thought to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Any major changes in Iran arising from the current instability – especially to the status of the supreme leader – could have significant repercussions for Hezbollah and the influence it wields in Lebanon and the region.

"No one admits that Hezbollah gets funding from the Bonyads as they are supposed to be for developing Iran. The [administrators of the Bonyads] don't need permission to give money to Hezbollah, but the supreme leader gives the general tone over who are the legitimate recipients of funds," says Ms. Saad-Ghorayeb.

Although Hezbollah long ago arranged additional sources of income through its own charities and businesses, the funds from Iran help sustain the party's massive social welfare apparatus of schools, clinics, hospitals, and economic development, as well as equipping its formidable military wing.

That reliance on Iranian financial generosity, along with Hezbollah's ideological commitment to the supreme leader, spurs accusations that the party is a tool of Iranian foreign policy rather than a Lebanese party opposing Israeli occupation and championing the rights of its Shiite constituents.

"Hezbollah is now in the awkward position of being a resistance group purportedly fighting injustice, while simultaneously cashing checks from an Iranian patron that is brutally suppressing justice at home," says Mr. Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

No. 2 ambiguous on role if Iran attacked

Hezbollah's relationship with Iran also raises the question of the party's response to an attack by Israel or the United States on Iran's nuclear facilities. Hezbollah has amassed an enormous stockpile of rockets with ranges covering most of Israel, a threat that Israeli strategists have to weigh when assessing the potential blowback from an attack on Iran.

Hezbollah's reaction would likely depend on the circumstances of an assault on Iran, whether it is a limited strike by one country or a more comprehensive attempt at regime change. But for now, Hezbollah refuses to clarify what support it may offer its Iranian patron.

"Ambiguity gives more strength to the resistance," Qassem says.

This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, July 20, to exchange the term "supreme leader" where "jurisprudent" was improperly used.

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