Lebanon’s Political Dynamics
Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943. Responding, in part, to Maronite nationalist aspirations, France—then the mandatory power in control of the lands that would become Syria and Lebanon—created what would be known as the State of Greater Lebanon, combining the Mount Lebanon Mutassarifate, the locus of Maronite settlement, with adjacent predominantly Muslim areas. While this made the Maronite enclave viable, it also included in the would-be state population groups with identities and affiliations strongly at odds with that of the Maronites. This would become the source of Lebanon’s regionally unique diverse social fabric, but also the cause of its chronic domestic instability.
Maronite preeminence was built into Lebanon’s early system. The 1943 National Pact—an informal agreement divvying up sectarian political power in the country—afforded the Maronites primacy of place based on the 1932 census, when the Eastern Christian sect formed a majority, and gave Christians the country’s most powerful political offices and a 6:5 majority in parliament. This census was the last Lebanon would ever conduct, in order to maintain the fiction of sectarian balance and avoid religious conflict.
Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim divide had broader political implications. Maronites and many smaller Christian sects were oriented towards Europe and the West. Generally, they rejected Pan-Arabism and denied that Lebanon was an Arab country. For many Lebanese Muslims, however, their country was still an integral part of a greater Syria and the wider Arab and Muslim world—and if the countries comprising greater Syria could not reunite as one state, they should at least be closely tied together culturally and politically.
Sectarian tensions over Lebanon’s identity intensified because of the influx of Palestinian refugees after the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and after the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Jordan in the early 1970s. Maronites vehemently opposed the refugees’ naturalization, which would have tipped Lebanon’s delicate sectarian scales against them. The 1969 Cairo Agreement, which removed Palestinian refugee camps from under Lebanese state authority, was meant to alleviate Lebanese-Palestinian tensions. Instead, the pact ended up heightening sectarian conflicts by allowing the PLO to establish a state-within-a-state in Lebanon, soon leading to violent clashes with Maronite militias. In 1975, these skirmishes sparked the bloody Lebanese Civil War, which lasted until 1990.
Lebanese Sunnis and Druze, resentful of continued Maronite dominance, sided with the Palestinians against their Christian compatriots. Lebanon’s army fractured along sectarian lines, and an alphabet soup of sectarian militias soon emerged, each inviting the assistance of one foreign backer or another—most critically, Syria and Israel
Syria never properly recognized Lebanon’s independence and saw the civil war as an opportunity to reassert control over that country and reverse the effects of the French mandate. Israel, allied with the Maronite Phalangist party, invaded to expel the PLO from the country and create the conditions for Lebanon to sign a peace agreement with Israel.
Israel would succeed in expelling the PLO, but its political aspirations ended in failure. Syria, by contrast, emerged as Lebanon’s new hegemon due to the 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended the civil war.
Now, only vestiges remain of Maronite preeminence in Lebanon. The Taif Agreement gave Sunni and Shiite Muslims parliamentary parity with Christians and increased the powers of their allocated key offices—prime minister and parliamentary speaker—at the expense of the Maronite-controlled presidency.
Sectarianism is built into Lebanon’s national DNA. While it accounts for Lebanon’s much-touted multi-religious tapestry, it is also an outgrowth of the country’s lack of a supra-religious, unified national identity and prevents the creation of such an identity. Per Lebanon’s National Pact, the country’s highest political offices are apportioned not based on merit, but sect: the president must always be the most powerful Maronite Christian figure, the prime minister the most powerful Sunni, and the speaker of parliament the most powerful Shiite. Similarly, political parties primarily coalesce around and represent religious sects, or familial/geographic divisions within each sect, rather than agreement over issues or political philosophies.
The 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended Lebanon’s civil war, ameliorated the effects of sectarianism by dividing parliament equally between Muslims and Christians and gave some of the Christian president’s powers to the Sunni prime minister and Shiite speaker of parliament. However, it did not eliminate old sectarian hatreds and suspicions, nor resolve the struggle over Lebanon’s identity that led to the country’s civil war. To the contrary, this cosmetic change, by ameliorating the worst effects of Lebanon’s sectarianism, arguably further entrenched this system.
Lebanon is thus a country that lacks a unified national identity, and foreign powers, like Iran, divide and conquer in this vacuum by stoking or exploiting sectarian grievances or hatreds.
Hezbollah: Iran’s Long Arm in Lebanon
For over three decades, Iran has exploited this sectarianism—particularly the Lebanese Shiite community’s grievances and disenfranchisement—to establish a solid foothold in Lebanon. The chaos of Lebanon’s civil war and the violence wrought upon Shiites during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon enabled Tehran to catalyze the rise of the first foreign extension of its Islamic Revolution: Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has grown into a powerful force in Lebanese politics and society. With Iranian assistance, but also through its own increasingly independent efforts, the group has spawned a vast social apparatus in Lebanon catering to its community’s needs; a growing military arm that has withstood three decades of conflict with the Israeli military; and achieved a global reach and ever-growing political power in Lebanon’s government.
Lebanon and Hezbollah may not yet be synonymous – though the group is gradually aspiring to achieve that goal – but Hezbollah has asserted its control over critical parts of Lebanese decision-making. At Iran’s orders, or to serve its interests, the group de facto decides when Lebanon will go to war or enjoy peace, as with its several rounds of conflict with Israel or unilateral decision to enter the Syrian Civil War. Notably, that decision was made not to defend Lebanon from Sunni jihadists, as is claimed, but rather to rescue the regime of Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad.
On August 6, 2021, Hezbollah militants launched rockets into Israel for the first time since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. The rocket attack took place on Shebaa Farms, a location adjacent to the Golan Heights claimed by Israel, Lebanon, and sometimes Syria. Hezbollah claimed that the attack was retaliation for an Israeli airstrike in southern Lebanon. The New York Times described the hostilities as an escalation in a “shadow war” between Iran and Israel. Both Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are ideologically opposed to the existence of Israel; they vow to destroy the nation.
A US State Department report from 2020 estimated that Iran provided Hezbollah with $700 million annually. Hezbollah spent this money on everything from benefits for its fighters to social services for its constituents. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which introduced harsh sanctions on the Iranian regime, reduced the amount of Iranian funding made available to Hezbollah. As a result, Hezbollah fighters received less benefits, and many were furloughed or placed on reserve. Less money went to social services for the Shia community. And Hezbollah had less money to finance its foreign operations, such as its support for President Assad in Syria, and its acquisition of arms.
In December 2021, Hezbollah Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, interviewed with Beirut-based al-Mayadeen TV, and bragged about the quantity and capability of Hezbollah’s arsenal of precision-guided missiles. He claimed that “the number of precision missiles at the resistance’s disposal has now doubled from what it was a year ago,” and that Israel failed to stop importing arms. He furthermore stated that these missiles have the capability of reaching anywhere in Israel. And he levied more direct threats against Israel in vowing to avenge the death of a Hezbollah fighter killed by Israel in Syria.
In October 2021, Hezbollah claimed to have 100,000 fighters, but experts said the real number is somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000. Israeli security officials claimed that Hezbollah possesses somewhere near 130,000 rockets and missiles, some of which have the range to reach anywhere in Israel. Many of these munitions, though, cannot be guided to hit specific targets in Israel. That is why Hezbollah is trying to convert unsophisticated rockets into precision missiles and drones. In February 2022, Hassan Nasrallah explicitly touted the help and cooperation of “experts from the Islamic Republic of Iran” on this project. Hezbollah also imported dual-use technologies, such as computer programs, laser range finders, and night vision goggles.
An October 2020 “Reward for Justice” offer made by the US State Department to pay up to $10 million for information leading to the disruption of Hezbollah’s financial networks listed Muhammad Qasir, Muhammad Qasim al-Bazzal, and Ali Qasir as the main actors in Hezbollah’s illicit financing, much of which comes from Iran. All three of these actors were designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists by the US State Department. In the offer, the State Department mentioned how Muhammad Qasir and other Hezbollah officials set up front companies to hide the IRGC-Quds Force’s role in the sale of crude oil. On the other hand, Ali Qasir ran a front company called Talaqi Group in order to deliver shipments by sea to the terrorist network. A 2018 Treasury designation of Qasir (head of Hezbollah Unit 108) described him as being responsible for “facilitating the transfer of weapons, technology, and other support from Syria to Lebanon.” In January 2022, the Biden administration enacted additional sanctions on a number of Hezbollah operatives and front companies in an effort to “disrupt Hezbollah’s illicit activities and [its] attempts to evade sanctions.”
In March 2022, a US Treasury delegation held talks in Beirut with the Lebanese president, along with other high-ranking officials. The talks were focused on Lebanon’s efforts to combat corruption, money laundering, terrorism financing, and drug and smuggling operations. US officials made clear that sanctions against Hezbollah should be enforced through financial and banking authorities.
Smuggling Drugs and Arms
In April 2021, five million Captagon pills were discovered at Jeddah Islamic Port in Saudi Arabia in what was supposed to be a shipment of pomegranates. In a separate shipping container discovered at Dammam’s King Abdulaziz Port, amphetamine pills were found and seized. Saudi officials accused Hezbollah based on the fact that the organization controls the flow of drugs out of Lebanon. This attempt to smuggle narcotics into Saudi Arabia led Saudi Arabia to ban all imports of fruits and vegetables from Lebanon. This was not an isolated event; over the past six years, over 600 million illegal pills were smuggled into Saudi Arabia, the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon alleged. This incident shows how the actions of Hezbollah can isolate the entire country.
The diplomatic fallout from this drug smuggling incident worsened in October 2021, when a Lebanese minister, George Kordahi, made public statements critical of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Moreover, Lebanon’s increasing power in Beirut also contributed to the cooling of relations. In what some saw as an effort to ease tensions with the Gulf States, Lebanon’s interior minister ordered the deportation of members of al Wefaq, an outlawed Bahraini Shia party opposed to the Bahraini monarchy, in December 2021; the political party was gathering in Beirut for a conference in order to criticize Bahrain’s human rights record.
In January 2022, Lebanon’s foreign minister met with his Gulf Arab counterparts, hoping to further thaw relations. The Gulf Arab ministers have sought the demilitarization of Hezbollah. In response to their requests, Lebanon’s foreign minister agreed to issue a statement that his country will not be “a launchpad for activities that violate Arab countries,” but he also said that “[he] is not going to Kuwait to hand over Hezbollah’s weapons… [that] is out of the question in Lebanon.”
In addition to smuggling drugs, Hezbollah smuggles weapons into and out of Lebanon. In July 2021, Israeli security forces foiled an attempt to transport 43 guns and ammunition worth around $800,000 across Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. In one case, the weapons were concealed in a tractor ostensibly engaged in agricultural activity. Hezbollah has long controlled the area in southern Lebanon from where the weapons were moved, so Israeli police followed up by investigating the militant organization. It is unlikely that the group did not at least know about the smuggling operations.
Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, wrote in March 2022 that “allegations of arms transfers to non-state actors [ie. Hezbollah] continue and remain of serious concern.” He wrote this statement before a UN Security Council meeting on Hezbollah’s violation of UN Resolution 1701, which provided the terms of a ceasefire that brought the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel to an end. UN Resolution 1701 stated that there should be “no sales or supply of arms and related material to Lebanon except as authorized by its government.”
But notwithstanding the pressure on Lebanon’s government from Gulf Arab states and statements distancing the Free Patriotic Movement from Hezbollah for domestic political consumption, recent comments by Lebanese President Michel Aoun on his trip to visit the Pope suggest that he is siding with Hezbollah—in a nod to his traditional alliance with the group. In an interview for La Republica, the president stated that Hezbollah’s military power “does not affect the security of the Lebanese in any way.” He went on to say that Hezbollah “cooperates” with the Lebanese Army with regard to the “situation at the southern border,” i.e., vis-à-vis Israel. These statements drew the ire of Christian groups in Lebanon.
In April 2021, Breaking Defense reported that Iran was transporting weapons to its Lebanese proxy via the Mediterranean under the cover of Russian ships, given Israel’s increasing effectiveness in striking land shipments through Syria. More recently, in March 2022, two Arab-Israeli citizens were indicted after allegedly being recruited by Hezbollah to hide weapons inside Israel so that they could be picked up and used against Israeli citizens. The man in charge of executing this plot was said to be Hajj Khalil Harb. He works with Hezbollah’s Unit 133—some accounts suggest he is its commander—which is responsible for recruiting operatives in Israel and the West Bank. He was also allegedly running a drug smuggling operation across the border between Israel and Lebanon.
Hezbollah in Lebanese Politics
Hezbollah also asserts outsize influence over Lebanon’s political decision-making. The group has become adept at crippling Lebanon’s political system to serve its interests. When political maneuvering fails Hezbollah has resorted to force. Despite its promises to never turn its weapons on its fellow Lebanese, in May 2008 the group invaded and seized Beirut in response to a governmental decision to shut down its telecommunications network and remove the pro-Hezbollah security chief from Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. Evidence also implicates Hezbollah in a campaign of assassinations against its political opponents—most infamously the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri. In February 2021, another political opponent of Hezbollah, known to be a prominent critic of the group, was assassinated in his car in an area known to be controlled by Hezbollah.
Hezbollah also can draw on its social support among Shiites to mobilize members of that sect to carry out street violence or simply shut down whole sections of the country—as with the December 2006 political protests, which led to the resignation of the US-backed government.
It also prevented Lebanon from electing a president for two years until its opponents caved and appointed its ally Michel Aoun in 2016. In 2018, the group prolonged Lebanon’s efforts to form a new government by backing the demands of pro-Hezbollah Sunnis to be represented in Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government, in an effort to weaken the premier and force him to concede the legitimacy of pro-Hezbollah voices within his sect. In January 2019, Hezbollah handpicked its Secretary General’s personal doctor, Jamil Jabak, to run Lebanon’s Health Ministry, which of all ministries has the fourth-largest budget, estimated by the Washington Institute to be nearly $338 million per year as of October 2018. This position gave the group access to funds that it could use to bolster its image among the local Shia population. More recently, the group and its allies are said to have gained control over “two-thirds of the governing portfolio.”
Hezbollah has been a force since that time. For example, it has backed two consecutive health ministers—Jamil Jabaq and Hassan Hamad. Jabaq, in particular, was close with its Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, having served as his personal physician. The health ministry is not an insignificant position in the cabinet—it has had the fourth-largest budget. That’s not to mention the other ministries that either its allies or members have occupied in the last two governments, for example, the Industry and Sports and Youth Ministries. The most recent prime minister, Hassan Diab, whose government collapsed after less than a year in office amid the massive explosion of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port in August 2020 and an economic crisis, was also backed by Hezbollah. In fact, his nomination was only supported by March 8 parliamentarians.
Yet those positions of responsibility contrast with how Hezbollah sees its role in Lebanon. It has disclaimed any responsibility for incidents like the one at the Beirut port, despite the Party of God’s reported dominance over Lebanese ports. In fact, Nasrallah himself indicated that his organization was more focused on the port of Haifa in Israel than the port of Beirut in Lebanon. It’s Iran’s transnational revolutionary movement that remains Hezbollah’s priority. The Lebanese system’s persistent failure erodes popular support for it and thereby furthers Hezbollah’s ultimate goal—replacing the Lebanese secular system with an Islamic republic based on the Iranian model.
In October 2021, hundreds of armed Hezbollah supporters took to the streets to protest and call for the removal of Judge Bitar, the lead prosecutor investigating the Beirut port explosion. In the investigation, the judge summoned former minister Nohad Machnouk and two senior security officials, leading some to believe that politicians would no longer be immune from the legal system. However, the officials, with the backing of the Ministry of Interior and Higher Defense Council, did not show up for interrogations, and they have filed legal complaints against the judge.
The most vehement voice that spoke out against the judge was Hezbollah. This suggests that the group supports the accused political elites. The investigations into the port explosion have been polarizing. At the October protest, snipers fired from a rooftop, and a gun battle ensued, killing seven civilians and combatants. This violence renewed fears of a civil war, given that all seven of the people allegedly killed by the primarily Christian Lebanese forces were Shia supporters of Hezbollah. And these fears remain as both sides continued to stoke sectarian sentiments as a way of gaining public support amid a largely dysfunctional state and failing economy.
Owing to the investigations into the port explosion, which destroyed Beirut’s port and half of the capital, killing over two-hundred people, injuring thousands, and leaving up to 300,000 people homeless, Hezbollah boycotted cabinet sessions for the newly-formed government, leading to a three-month period without cabinet meetings. The boycott only worsened Lebanon’s deep economic crisis. In January 2022, Hezbollah, along with its allied political party, Amal, agreed that they would end the boycott, claiming that they were doing so in order to pass a budget. This episode showed the group’s influence over Lebanese politics.
Lebanon’s parliamentary elections are slated to take place on May 15, 2022. The elections are expected to be hotly contested, because the victorious party will select the next head of state when President Michel Aoun’s six-year term ends in October 2022. Many are hoping that this election will lead to a turn-around in the country’s current domestic issues, including corruption and mismanagement. Notably, Hezbollah faces opposition from those who view the group as subservient to Iran’s interests, however one expert believes that “Hezbollah and its allies will sweep the majority of districts as the opponents are engaged in fragmenting internal side battles.”
The current president of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, has political allies in Hezbollah who are against any normalization of relations with Israel; they say that they will never accept peace with Israel. This contrasts with the president’s own statements opening the possibility of a peace process that resolves Lebanon’s territorial claims. Hezbollah opposes any cooperation between the Israeli and Lebanese governments, including ongoing US-led efforts to resolve a dispute over maritime boundaries.
In January 2022, Sunni Muslim leader and three-time former prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, said that he was ending his engagement in Lebanese politics, and he called on his party, the Future Movement, to boycott the upcoming elections in May 2022. Hariri cited Iranian influence in Lebanon as a reason for the country’s political and economic stagnation, and a reason why he was removing himself from Lebanese politics. “I am convinced that there is no room for any positive opportunity for Lebanon in light of Iranian influence, international confusion, national division, flaring sectarianism, and the withering of the state,” Mr. Hariri said.
Hezbollah holds considerable sway over Lebanon’s political system to the detriment of the Lebanese people. Hezbollah puts its interests before the people of Lebanon through corruption, weakening state institutions, illicit drug production, smuggling, sex trafficking, and military buildup. One analyst says that Hezbollah benefits from a poor Lebanon, in part because poverty increases dependence on Tehran and Hezbollah.
Hezbollah fosters this dependence in many ways, including holding up government processes, and exploits it by providing services that the central government fails to provide. For example, Hezbollah builds schools, runs hospitals, and charitable organizations. But an analyst at Brookings Institution views Hezbollah’s role in corruption and its defense of the status-quo as hampering its political prospects. In addition to opposing government accountability, Hezbollah is fundamentally opposed to Lebanon’s national sovereignty as it acts on Iran’s behalf.
Hezbollah’s Economic Influence
Hezbollah receives significant economic support from Iran, which it uses to prop up its image as Lebanon is suffering one of the worst economic crises in its history. Flouting US sanctions, Hezbollah imported millions of gallons worth of diesel fuel into Lebanon from Syria in October 2021. In a country experiencing a fuel shortage, this came as a relief and boosted public sentiment toward the extremist group. Hassan Nasrallah claimed that the fuel would be donated to “hospitals, nursing homes, [and] orphanages.” Hezbollah’s efforts to propagandize this fuel shipment were extensive, notwithstanding the fact that it did little to alleviate the country’s shortage.
Given Lebanon’s shortage of fuel, the World Bank has offered to finance a project to provide the country with Egyptian natural gas. The US endorsed this deal that is meant to counter Iran’s attempts to export fuel to Lebanon. The deal would ship natural gas from Egypt through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon. Both Egypt and Lebanon sought assurances from the US that such a shipment would be allowed under US law. The countries wanted to be sure that they did not need a sanctions waiver from the US, because entities that do business with Syria can be sanctioned under US law. In January 2022, the office of Lebanon’s prime minister issued a statement saying that the US ambassador to Lebanon provided further assurances that the imports would not contravene US sanctions. Egypt was still seeking those assurances as of January 2022. A senior State Department official, Victoria Nuland, said that the deal “falls under the humanitarian category, [so] no sanctions waiver would be required.”
Iran is also attempting to be a patron of the Lebanese government. In March 2022, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian made an official visit to Lebanon where he met with Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah as well as high-ranking Lebanese officials, including the president, prime minster and speaker of parliament. Iran’s foreign minister discussed political developments in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan with Hezbollah’s leader. Iran’s Foreign Ministry website said that Iran was prepared to provide wheat to Lebanon and assist in the engineering, industrial, and energy sectors.
Amid the devasting economic crisis in Lebanon, Hezbollah delivers services that the government is not able to provide. For example, Hezbollah makes regular charity donations to Shia communities and has even developed its own parallel banking system. Hezbollah’s financial arm is known as al-Qard al-Hasan Association, and it reportedly stayed reliable for cash withdrawals when other Lebanese banks were implementing capital controls to stanch a run on the banks. The Hezbollah-run banks also reportedly provide interest-free loans. In May 2021, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the US Treasury Department sanctioned several members of Hezbollah who were using “shadow banks,” like al-Qard al-Hasan, to evade sanctions and gain access to the international financial system.
Further contributing to its status as a “state within a state,” Hezbollah supports poor people, especially those in Shia communities, by funding a low-income grocery store chain, known as Makahzen Nour. The group supports agricultural projects, implements residential construction projects through its charity organization, Jihad al-Bina, and builds schools and hospitals. They also took a hand in mobilizing a COVID-19 response, with up to “1,500 doctors, 3,000 nurses and paramedics, and 20,000 more activists”, according to the group’s executive council.
Hezbollah even competes with the US, a major provider of economic aid to the country, for influence through its own provision of aid. In 2015, the Obama administration pared back these programs, some of which were designed to foster alternative Shia political parties, choosing instead to funnel money to a political elite that is widely viewed by the population as incompetent. It is unclear whether the Biden administration has taken the same approach in order to appease Iran in the nuclear negotiations.