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” (Velayat-e 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. The U.S. Department of State designated Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) in 1997. Unlike the European Union, the U.S. did not differentiate between the group’s political and military wings, and instead designated the group in its entirety. While the U.K. and Germany are exceptions, the European Union has only sanctioned Hezbollah’s military arm. The EU’s decision not to follow suit with the U.K. and Germany has created tension with the U.S. and Israel.

Indeed, Hezbollah does operate as a political party in Lebanon, holding parliamentary and cabinet seats. For this reason, reports indicate some EU countries are opposed to proscribing the group in its entirety. 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, especially its stronghold in southern Beirut, 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 gratitude and support from Lebanese Shiites.

Velayat-e 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 Velayat-e 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. In the letter, it declared its obedience to “one leader, wise and just,” the Wali al-Faqih, and itself a continuation of the Islamic Revolution “made victorious by God in Iran.”

Hezbollah updated its Open Letter document in 2009 with the release of its “Political Document.” However, both before and after the latter document’s release, Hezbollah’s senior leaders stressed that it would not alter their adherence to Velayat-e 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 Velayat-e 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. However, total financial support is closer to $800 million per year, according to a former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff.

Iran also provides Hezbollah with weaponseverything from small arms and Katyusha rockets to more advanced platforms, including anti-tank rockets, longer-range surface-to-surface missiles, and anti-ship missiles. Hezbollah stands today as the most heavily armed and technically capable sub-state actor in the world, but its conventional capabilities still are no match for Israel. Hezbollah has thus relied heavily on psychological warfare designed to terrorize Israeli civilians as part of its military doctrine to bridge the gap. Most infamously, the Iran-backed terror group indiscriminately lobbed up to 160 Katyusha rockets per day at Israeli population centers during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

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. Its rocket arsenal serves as the group’s primary deterrent against Israel. All of Israel is currently within range of Hezbollah’s rockets.

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 also reportedly trained Hezbollah’s military specialists in producing arms at the IRGC-affiliated Imam Hussein University.

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.” 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.

Tehran also trains Hezbollah’s fighters and commanders at IRGC-run camps in both Lebanon and Iran, and has fought alongside the group in multiple engagements—including in the Second Lebanon War against Israel, and in the Syrian Civil War. Additionally, Iran has reportedly built-up Hezbollah’s cyberwarfare capabilities.

Hezbollah in Action: In Service of Iran

Iran exploited the chaos of Lebanon’s Civil War and the subsequent 1982 Israeli invasion, which aimed to root out the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), 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. The group’s steadfast loyalty provides Tehran with the ability to extend its regional and global reach and threaten Israel from forward bases in Lebanon and Syria.

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 also incubates Iranian-backed 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 ISIS seized territories in Iraq and Syria in 2014, these militias have multiplied, with most joining Iraq’s state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The late PMF deputy commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, once 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 traveled to Yemen to provide aid—in the form of funds, arms, technical, and operational support—and train the Zaydi Shiite Houthi rebels in their war against neighboring Saudi Arabia. While the Houthis do not share Hezbollah’s religious views—for example, they don’t adhere to belief in the Velayat-e Faqih—Hezbollah aided the Houthis when the latter were fighting against Riyadh, a leading rival of Tehran, and are likely to continue to support the group in the context of its disruptive attacks against international shipping, which it claims are a response to Israel’s war against Hamas. Houthi control of Yemen at first sought to weaken the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; it has grown into a major threat to maritime security and global commerce.

Hezbollah Attacks against Israel

Although Hezbollah agreed to cease hostilities with Israel in 2006 and to remove its troops from southern Lebanon in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701, the group has continued to launch attacks against Israel’s homeland. In September 2019, Hezbollah launched attacks directly on the Israeli military, firing anti-tank missiles at an army base and vehicles near the border. In June 2020, Israel’s Shin Bet security agency alleged that Hezbollah was seeking to recruit Arab citizens of Israel to carry out terrorist attacks against Israel. In July 2020, Israel reportedly repelled a Hezbollah attempted border infiltration with heavy shelling. Several days prior, Israel announced it had thwarted a terrorist plot masterminded by Hezbollah and Iran to abduct an Israeli soldier. The plot was to be carried out by a cell of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine operating in the West Bank.

On October 8, 2023, one day after the Iran-backed Palestinian terrorist group Hamas conducted its deadliest terrorist attack against Israel in the state’s history, the Iranian proxy group Hezbollah launched guided rockets and artillery strikes on Israel’s Shebaa Farms “in solidarity” with the Palestinian terrorists.

On October 9, 2023, several Hezbollah militants were killed in a cross-border shelling by Israel following an incursion by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terrorists from Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Hezbollah returned fire, launching a barrage of rockets into Israel.

Senior Israeli officials informed The Times of Israel that Iran had directed Hezbollah to prepare to engage Israel. This would open a second front against Israel as it conducts war in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The threat of a multi-front terror attack against Israel has been at the heart of the Iranian regime’s strategy and one they have consistently communicated before, during, and after the October 7 attacks.  

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah praised the Hamas attack in a statement that read, “[the Hamas operation] sends a message to the Arab and Islamic world, and the international community as a whole, especially those seeking normalization with this enemy, that the Palestinian cause is an everlasting one, alive until victory and liberation.” He reportedly played a role in the operational planning of the assault, alongside his Iranian patrons, over the course of months, if not more than a year, at meetings in Beirut.

Because Hezbollah’s troops are amassed near Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens have evacuated from their homes in northern Israel. There have been daily skirmishes consisting of cross-border fire since Israel’s war against Hamas began, with the Lebanon-based group declaring its support for Hamas and ostensibly seeking to shift Israel’s attention away from dismantling Hamas toward its northern front.

In an effort to prevent Iranian efforts to surge arms to Hezbollah, Israel has presided over an intensifying air campaign in Syria targeting Hezbollah operatives, and it eliminated Wissam Tawil, an elite Hezbollah fighter who was responsible for aerial attacks against Israel, in a strike in southern Lebanon. Further, Israel severely wounded Abbas Al-Debes, a commander in Hezbollah, in a strike targeting his car in southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah in Lebanon: “Lebanonization” vs. Pragmatism

In line with its adherence to Velayat-e 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 political system’s confines and gaining popular support, instead of imposing an Islamic state by force. The roots of this pragmatic approach are contained in Hezbollah’s Open Letter, wherein the group prioritized popular support over territorial control, calling on the Lebanese people and government to willingly adopt an Iran-style Islamic republic. According to Hassan Nasrallah and his deputy, Naim Qassem, this grassroots strategy remains in place today, buttressed by the extensive social services the group provides to its Shia constituency.

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 the defender of 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 have 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. For example, 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. Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2019, Hezbollah remained Iran’s most powerful terrorist partner and the most capable terrorist organization in Lebanon, controlling areas across the country.

In 2013, the European Union branded Hezbollah’s armed wing a terrorist organization but distinguished it from Hezbollah’s political wing. Ahead of the designation, Europe’s leaders were divided over the label out of fear of complicating their relationships with Lebanon. Though the EU distinguished between Hezbollah’s political and armed wings, the terror group considers itself a singular organization, and its leadership has continued to pursue a terrorist agenda with Iranian aid. In early 2020, Germany joined the United Kingdom and the Netherlands in designating Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist group. Argentina, Paraguay, Guatemala, Honduras, Kosovo, Lithuania, Serbia and Colombia also designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in 2019 and 2020.

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 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.

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