Iranian Influence in Lebanon: The Hezbollah model

The preferred strategy employed by Iran to expand its ideological influence throughout the Middle East is the “Hezbollah model.” Iran helped create the terrorist group in Lebanon in the early 1980s following Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982. Iran’s financing of Hezbollah’s military and social services enables the group to solidify its role as the protector and provider of Lebanon’s Shi’a community. This core constituency provides the base for Hezbollah and Iran to fight for dominance throughout the Middle East.

Despite Hezbollah’s rhetorical goal of freeing Lebanon from foreign occupation, it has made no secret of its allegiance to or support from Iran. Hezbollah is first and foremost an instrument of the Iranian regime that has pledged allegiance to the ideals put forward by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Iranian revolution and Iran’s first supreme leader. The group explicitly states in its 1985 “open letter,” essentially the group’s founding manifesto and mission statement, “We are often asked: Who are we, the Hezbollah, and what is our identity? We are the sons of the umma (Muslim community) – the party of God (Hizb Allah) the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran. … We obey the orders of one leader, wise and just, that of our tutor and faqih (jurist) who fulfills all the necessary conditions: Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini. God save him!”

In the years prior to the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which rescued Iran’s economy from the brink of calamity with an infusion of $50-100 billion in previously frozen assets, Iran provided Hezbollah with an estimated $200 million per year for both its militant and social/political activities. Immediately preceding the JCPOA, international sanctions and falling oil prices led Iran to reportedly cut its monetary support to Hezbollah by 40% in 2015, with the cuts primarily coming from Hezbollah’s health and social services rather than military budget.

The lifeline provided by the JCPOA has allowed Iran to drastically escalate its funding of Hezbollah. In June 2016, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah proclaimed that, “We are open about the fact that Hezbollah's budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, are from the Islamic Republic of Iran. … As long as Iran has money, we have money.” In 2017, Iran reportedly quadrupled its pre-JCPOA funding of Hezbollah, upping its aid to $830 million per year. According to the U.S. State Department Country Reports on Terrorism 2019, in recent years, Iran’s annual financial backing to Hizballah has been estimated at $700 million, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of the group’s annual budget. In addition, Hezbollah supplements its Iranian aid through its fundraising and criminal activities in Europe, Africa, and Latin America.

Hezbollah’s efficacy as a foreign policy tool of the Iranian regime is two-fold, comprising hard and soft power objectives. On the hard power front is the group’s militant “resistance” character. Hezbollah carries out terrorist and criminal operations around the world with Iran’s guidance and direction in furtherance of its shared anti-Israel, anti-U.S. agenda. On Iran’s orders, Hezbollah bombed the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in October 1983, killing 241 American peacekeepers and 58 French soldiers. This attack sparked the withdrawal of the U.S. and France from Lebanon, paving the ground for Iran to consolidate its power in Lebanon. In more recent years, Hezbollah’s terrorist militia has evolved into a potent conventional fighting force as well since entering the Syrian Civil War at Iran’s behest to prop up the embattled Assad regime.

Equally important is Hezbollah’s soft power approach, which serves to implant and spread Iran’s revolutionary ideology in the areas of southern Lebanon under Hezbollah control. Hezbollah acts as more than just a “resistance” organization, it is a political party as well whose potency lies in the network of social services, hospitals, mosques, charities, and even a satellite TV network, Al-Manar, that the group operates with an annual budget of $15 million. Hezbollah’s provision of essential services, such as garbage collection and healthcare, and welfare services to its Lebanese Shi’a constituency, particularly vulnerable strata of society such as orphans, the disabled, and the elderly, address gaps in the provision of such aid by the Lebanese state, establishing Hezbollah as a viable alternative to the state and boosting the group’s domestic popularity. Through Hezbollah, Iran capitalizes on the weakness of the Lebanese state to fund “a variety of cultural, educational, religious, and reconstruction projects” aimed at justifying its presence and promoting its ideological and political agenda in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s creation of parallel, quasi-state structures inculcates loyalty and patronage to Hezbollah, and by extension, Iran, thereby weakening official Lebanese state structures and vesting Hezbollah as a crucial power broker with the ability to bring the Lebanese government to a standstill. Since the 2008 Doha Agreement, Hezbollah has had veto power over government decisions and non-Shi’a leaders have increasingly had to join or reach accommodations with the Hezbollah-led March 8th coalition in order to assure their political survival.

Much of Iran’s largesse goes to providing salaries and social services to Hezbollah members and fighters, incentivizing young Lebanese Shi’ites to join the organization and their families to embrace it. Hezbollah pays its Lebanese conscripts between $500 and $2000 a month, a substantial and alluring amount for young men which has enabled the organization to overcome recruiting shortages and supply manpower for the brutal fighting in Syria. Hezbollah also operates a Martyr’s Foundation, which provides financial assistance to the families of fallen soldiers in Syria ranging between $25,000 and $45,000, as well as health and social services.

The most important Iranian aid organization operating in Lebanon is the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC), whose Lebanese branch was designated by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2010 for “for being owned or controlled by Hizballah and for providing financial and material support to Hizballah.” The IKRC’s assets are controlled by Supreme Leader Khamenei, while its $2 billion budget is supplied primarily by the Iranian government, with about 25% coming from public donations and fundraising abroad.

The IKRC began operations in Beirut in 1986, and today has over 10,000 Lebanese under direct payroll and another 1,000 volunteers. The organization delivers aid to more than 400 cities and rural areas of Lebanon and has 20 offices around the country. Its primary charitable activities are “cash assistance, health services, educational programs, housing, informational trips for young Lebanese to Iran, emergency relief assistance at times of conflicts and natural disasters, interest-free loans, and marriage assistance.” Beyond charity, the IKRC is a diplomatic tool of promoting Iranian culture and ideology in Lebanon, earning fealty and patronage to Iran from its beneficiaries.

The Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon (ICRL) is another important institution that Iran uses to curry favor in Beirut which doubles as an instrument of Tehran’s expansionist agenda. Established by the IRGC in 2006 to help rebuild Hezbollah-controlled areas of southern Lebanon devastated in the Israeli-Hezbollah War, Iran spent over $1 billion on over 5000 construction and rebuilding projects in the years directly following the war. While the ICRL did play a role in reconstructing mosques, educational centers, and health facilities, many of its aims were nefarious and non-humanitarian related.

The ICRL provided a cover for Iran to embed elite Quds Force operatives in Lebanon under the radar. The organization’s “civilian” leader, Hessam Khoshnevis, was in reality a senior Quds Force commander named Hassan Shateri using a false identity. Under Shateri’s leadership, the ICRL played an integral role in resupplying Hezbollah’s arsenal and building a secret fiber optics network for secure communications which triggered the 2008 crisis that strengthened Hezbollah at the expense of the Lebanese government. The U.S. Treasury Department designated the ICRL in August 2010, finding that, “ICRL has financed and facilitated Hizballah's infrastructure and private communications network that enables the terrorist group to communicate securely.” In 2019, Argentina, Kosovo, Paraguay, and the United Kingdom all joined the United States in designating the entirety of Hizballah as a terrorist organization, rejecting the false distinction between its “military wing” and a purportedly “political wing.”

Iran’s cultural and educational activities in Lebanon are directed by the Cultural Center for the Islamic Republic of Iran in Beirut (CCI), an initiative of Iran’s Ministry of Cultural and Islamic Guidance. The CCI is essentially Tehran’s umbrella propaganda arm in Lebanon, utilizing schools and universities, local mosques and cultural centers, and print and broadcast media outlets to promote Hezbollah and Iran’s revolutionary ethos in Lebanon. The CCI provides free cultural and educational activities throughout the country and oversees an Iranian network of schools, universities, and religious seminaries.

Islamic Azad University is among the CCI-backed educational institutions, operating branches in Beirut and Al-Nabatieh. In July 2017, Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei’s chief foreign policy advisor, announced IAU will open additional branches in Lebanon in order to train the next generation of “resistance.Al-Mustafa University also maintains a modest presence in Lebanon, operating two seminaries for training male and female clerics, many of whom go on to serve as pro-Iranian missionaries elsewhere in the Middle East and Latin America, which has a large Lebanese expatriate community.

The CCI also oversees Iran’s media operations in Lebanon, which has become a hub for producing state-run propaganda. Al-Alam and Press TV both operate bureaus in Beirut, broadcasting Iranian regime perspectives to the Arabic and English speaking worlds. The CCI has also served as a technical and financial partner in the establishment of Hezbollah’s media empire, which includes a satellite TV network (Al-Manar), radio station (Radio Nour), nearly two dozen print and online newspapers, and a robust social media presence.

Amid an economic recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, Hezbollah has a unique opportunity to bolster its image and expand its patronage networks. Notwithstanding U.S. sanctions, Iran has come to the support of Hezbollah to exploit the dire circumstances, providing shipments of oil through Syria to help ease the crippling energy crisis that has further ground the economy to a halt. The fuel shipments were effective propaganda for both Assad and the Iranian regime at a time when the Lebanese government could ill afford to import energy supplies given its lack of hard currency. In a move to counter this Iranian oil diplomacy, the U.S. endorsed a World Bank-financed project to deliver Egyptian oil to Lebanon through Jordan and Syria, offering assurances that the regional energy deal would not contravene U.S. sanctions even though it involves Syria. Whether the World Bank will approve and implement the project is unclear at this time.

The COVID-19 pandemic offered the terrorist organization another opportunity to fill a void in public services. Early on in the pandemic, Hezbollah rolled out testing centers, a fleet of ambulances, and hospitals to help deal with the health crisis. According to the leader of the group’s executive council, Hashem Safieddine, Hezbollah deployed 1500 doctors, 3000 nurses and medics, 5000 health workers, and 20000 activists, many of which are employed by Hezbollah’s Islamic Health Association. These assets then provided the basis for an extensive propaganda campaign, with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah making regular television appearances as though he were the head-of-state. Additionally, Hezbollah operates its own financial firm, al-Qard al-Hasan (AQAH), which serves the essential purpose of financing the group’s activities, providing hard-currency and loan servicing to its constituency, and maintaining accounts for Iranian organizations, including the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, the Iranian Red Crescent, and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.

Hezbollah rally in Bint Jbeil, Lebanon (Source: AFP)
Hezbollah rally in Bint Jbeil, Lebanon (Source: AFP)