Hezbollah is a Lebanon-based, transnational, Shiite Islamist terrorist organization founded by Iran in 1982. The group’s common appellation “Lebanese Hezbollah” is a misnomer. Hezbollah’s primary loyalty is to Iran and its supreme leader, not to Lebanon. The organization adheres to the ideology of “guardianship of the jurist” (Wiilayat al-Faqih), as expounded by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s first supreme leader.
Since its inception, Hezbollah has engaged in terrorism against Iran’s enemies and its own, both in Lebanon and abroad. These activities have led the U.S. and other countries to designate the group as a terrorist organization.
Hezbollah also operates as a political party in Lebanon, holding parliamentary and cabinet seats. The group, acting in concord with other parties in its coalition, exercises de facto veto power over the formation and operations of the Lebanese government.
In predominantly Shiite areas of Lebanon, Hezbollah also runs a vast social-services network—including hospitals, schools, vocational institutions, and charities—to compensate for the Lebanese state’s incompetence in providing such services. These welfare efforts have earned Hezbollah the gratitude and support of Lebanese Shiites.
Wilayat al-Faqih and the 1985 Open Letter: Hezbollah’s Khomeinist Doctrine
Hezbollah’s service to Iran stems from its adherence to Khomeini’s teachings on Islamic government, and his religio-political ideology of Wilayat al-Faqih. The group first revealed its adherence to this Khomeinist doctrine in its 1985 “Open Letter,” the group’s foundational document which officially announced its existence.
Hezbollah updated the Open Letter in 2009 with the release of its “Political Document.” However, both before and after the Document’s release, Hezbollah’s senior leaders stressed that it would not alter their adherence to Wilayat al-Faqih. While unveiling the 2009 Document, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah stressed that it had no impact on his group’s “creed, ideology, or thought”—particularly Wilayat al-Faqih – which he said is “not a political stance that can be subjected to revision.” in 2016, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem reaffirmed the party’s adherence to the Open Letter and its doctrines, calling it a “permanent and continuous document,” and downplaying the 2009 Manifesto as merely “minor” or “trivial” adjustments with no impact on the group’s core ideology.
Iran’s Support for Hezbollah
Hezbollah makes no secret of receiving extensive financial backing from Iran. Estimates of Iranian annual funding range from $100 to $200 million per year in cash outlays alone, according to the U.S. intelligence community, to $800 million according to a former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff.
Iran also provides Hezbollah with weapons—everything from small arms and Katyusha rockets to more advanced platforms, including anti-tank rockets, longer-range surface-to-surface missiles, and anti-ship missiles. Iranian assistance has grown Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal from an estimated 12,000 projectiles in 2006 to a current estimate of over 150,000 rockets—the majority of which are inaccurate, short-range, and low-payload Katyushas. Concurrently, Iran has expanded Hezbollah’s arsenal of mid- and long-range missiles from dozens of each to thousands and hundreds, respectively.
Reports in 2017 claimed the IRGC had built Hezbollah weapons factories in Lebanon capable of producing surface-to-surface, land-based anti-ship missiles and torpedoes launched from light water craft. The IRGC reportedly also trained Hezbollah’s military specialists in producing arms at the IRGC-affiliated Imam Hussein University. However, it remains unclear how Hezbollah acquires and domestically produces the sophisticated components necessary to manufacture these advanced missiles, which the Iranians themselves have difficulty in doing at home. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israeli intelligence and military efforts have prevented Hezbollah from acquiring large quantities of precision-guided missiles—limiting this arsenal to “a few dozen” —and Maj. Gen. Tamir Hyman, chief of the IDF’s Directorate of Military Intelligence, noted that the group lacks the ability to produce such missiles in Lebanon.
Hezbollah in Action: In Service of Iran
Iran exploited the chaos of Lebanon’s Civil War and the subsequent 1982 Israeli invasion to catalyze the rise of Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s formation extended Tehran’s influence to Lebanon and the Levant, and fulfilled Khomeini’s imperative to export the Islamic Revolution. Tehran’s longstanding financial support has proven critical to the quality of Hezbollah’s fighting capabilities, as well as its regional and global reach.
Iran’s investment has paid off. Since its founding, Hezbollah has operated as the spearhead for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) far beyond Lebanon’s borders in order to protect Tehran’s interests. In the 1980s, for example, Hezbollah targeted Europe-based officials of the deposed Pahlavi monarchy and attacked France for supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War.
Hezbollah has also incubated Iranian-branded proxies throughout the region. At Tehran’s behest, the group created Unit 3800 in 2003 to train and assist pro-Iran Iraqi Shiite militias fighting American and multinational forces. Particularly since the rise of ISIS in 2014, these militias have multiplied, with most joining Iraq’s state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). PMF deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis has said that his fighters have “benefited greatly” from the support of Hezbollah, which continues to play a “central” and “very important role” in the PMF’s battle readiness, and has even “offered martyrs” for the Iraqi battlefield. Al-Muhandis even claimed Hezbollah’s presence in Iraq dated back to the 1980s, when its storied commanders Imad Mughniyeh and Mustafa Badreddine came to Iraq to train Shiites to fight Saddam Hussein.
Since 2011, Hezbollah has also led the effort to defend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, whose downfall would pose a strategic threat to Tehran. Hezbollah played a critical role in important battles—particularly the Qusayr, Qalamoun, Aleppo, Badiat al-Sham, and Eastern Ghouta campaigns. The group has also recruited and trained Shiites – from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere – and other fighters to buttress Assad’s forces, including the National Defense Forces militia.
Hezbollah’s advisers have also travelled to Yemen to provide aid – in the form of funds, arms, etc. – and train the Zaydi Shiite Houthi rebels in their war against neighboring Saudi Arabia. While the Houthis do not share Hezbollah’s religious views, including belief in the Wilayat al-Faqih, Hezbollah aids the Houthis because the latter are fighting against Riyadh, a leading rival of Tehran, and Houthi control of Red Sea shipping and the Bab el-Mandeb would weaken the Kingdom.
In September 2019, Hezbollah launched attacks directly on the Israeli military, firing anti-tank missiles targeting an army base and vehicles near the border.
Hezbollah in Lebanon: “Lebanonization” vs. Pragmatism
In line with its adherence to Wilayat al-Faqih, Hezbollah has aimed from its inception to replace the Lebanese Republic with an Iran-style Islamic state. Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War, Hezbollah has adopted a pragmatic approach to Islamizing Lebanese governance, participating in and increasingly influencing Lebanese politics. Hezbollah’s purportedly moderate path has inspired two erroneous and alternative narratives. The first is that the group has fully integrated into the Lebanese system and shed its desire to replace it. The second narrative is that Hezbollah controls Lebanon entirely, rendering any distinction between the group and the Lebanese state meaningless and artificial—that in practice, Lebanon is Hezbollah. In fact, both views misunderstand Hezbollah’s place in Lebanese society and the group’s long-term goals.
In its early years, Hezbollah openly declared its revolutionary aims and refused to work within the Lebanese political system. But as Lebanon’s Civil War waned, Hezbollah recognized the limits of its own power and realized that a confrontational approach would isolate the group domestically and put it at odds with the new dominant power in Lebanon—Syria.
The organization therefore changed course, seeking to achieve its Islamist goal by operating within the Lebanese system’s confines and thereby gaining popular support, instead of imposing an Islamic state by force. The roots of this pragmatic approach are in Hezbollah’s Open Letter, wherein the group prioritizing public backing over territorial control. It called on the vast majority of Lebanese to willingly adopt an Iran-style Islamic republic. According to Hassan Nasrallah and his deputy, Naim Qassem, this grassroots strategy remains in place today.
Hezbollah also sought to grow its strength by focusing on issues of Lebanese popular consensus. Therefore, Hezbollah rebranded from the “Islamic Revolution in Lebanon” to the “Islamic Resistance in Lebanon,” centering its military activities on fighting Israel and ending the latter’s occupation of south Lebanon. By positioning itself as defending Lebanon against Israel, Hezbollah forced the Lebanese government to tolerate the group’s growing autonomous military strength until, by the time Israel withdrew from the south in 2000, the group was too powerful for Beirut to disarm or control.
Complementing its military strategy, Hezbollah likewise has cultivated a “host environment” to transform itself from an impermanent band of guerillas into a social movement and fixture of Lebanese society. Hezbollah set about filling the state’s void and neglect in caring for impoverished Lebanese Shiites, establishing schools, hospitals, and other social institutions. Large parts of the Shiite community repaid this debt by becoming the group’s political constituency, providing it with governmental representation and influence. Equally important, Hezbollah draws on Lebanese Shiites to fill its fighting ranks.
At the same time, Hezbollah and Lebanon have not become one indistinguishable entity. The organization has never hesitated to harm Lebanon whenever Hezbollah’s interests, or Iran’s, are jeopardized. Evidence implicates Hezbollah in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri, who threatened Hezbollah and Iran’s position in the country by opposing their ally Damascus’ hegemony over Beirut. Hezbollah also allegedly timed the 2006 Second Lebanon War with Israel—which devastated Lebanese infrastructure and civilians—to distract international attention from Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In 2008, Hezbollah even turned its weapons on the Lebanese and invaded Beirut when the government attempted to shut down the group’s telecommunications network and remove Beirut Airport’s pro-Hezbollah security chief. Hezbollah’s subordination of Lebanon’s interests is most evident by its entry into the Syrian civil war, where the group has fought to preserve the Assad regime and, consequently, Tehran’s regional hegemony, despite the damage to Lebanon’s standing in the Arab world.
According to the U.S. State Department Country Reports on Terrorism 2019, Hizballah remained Iran’s most powerful terrorist partner and the most capable terrorist organization in Lebanon, controlling areas across the country.
Hezbollah’s “Resistance Economy”
Hezbollah does not depend solely on Iran for financing. The group has established its own shadow economy in Lebanon that is semi-impervious to U.S. financial sanctions. Part of this economy takes the innocuous cover of legitimate businesses, religious and social charities, and the Islamic Resistance Support Association (IRSA). The IRSA, purportedly controlled by Hezbollah’s “political wing,” is Hezbollah’s official domestic and international fundraising arm for its military activities, with funds going toward everything from purchasing military gear to weapons platforms to providing for the families of fallen fighters. The group also allegedly derives income from indirect involvement in transnational criminal activities, including counterfeiting currencies, documents, and goods; credit card fraud; money laundering; arms smuggling; and drug-trafficking—particularly of marijuana, cocaine, and Captagon.