Date: 17/03/2021 Time: 20:39
Authored by Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Shimon Shapira via jcpa.org
An official Hizbullah delegation, headed by Lebanese MP Mohammad Ra’ad, arrived in Moscow for a three-day visit at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s invitation. Hizbullah representatives met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his deputy, Mikhail Bogdanov, President Putin’s representative to the Middle East, the national security adviser, and members of the Douma, Russia’s parliament.
Russia is seeking to find a solution to Lebanon’s political crisis, which is preventing the formation of a permanent government in Beirut. It threatens the disintegration of the checks and balances underlying Lebanon’s sectarian government system that has existed since 1943.
In the background, the Lebanese economy is collapsing. The Central Bank, which has lost its ability to stabilize the local currency exchange rate, has already crossed the 15,000 Lebanese lira rate per U.S. dollar, losing 90 percent of its value since October 2019. The devastating living conditions in Lebanon have already led to angry demonstrations in Beirut that threaten the stability of the Lebanese state.
At the same time, Hizbullah operates an alternative governmental system separate from the central government in Beirut. It includes an independent economic system, including Hizbullah banks with ATMs; a health system that provides a partial solution to the state’s inability to cope with the coronavirus pandemic; an independent educational system, which includes kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools; a scouts frameworks; and a system of 32 hawzat (religious studies seminaries) and welfare institutions throughout Lebanon. Funding for this all-encompassing system is estimated at $1 billion a year, and funds continue to come from Iran despite the imposed economic sanctions. In the words of Hizbullah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah himself: “as long as Iran has money, we have money… Just as we receive the rockets that we use to threaten Israel, we are receiving our money.”1
Iran’s maintenance of Hizbullah in Lebanon does not come from any altruistic goal of supporting the Shi’ite community. Large parts of the community are faithful to the theological principle of Velâyat-e Faqih, which views the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as their political and religious guardian and Hassan Nasrallah as his representative in Lebanon.
Iran’s Expanding Footprint in Lebanon
Since the outbreak of the uprising in Syria a decade ago, Iran has increased its involvement in Hizbullah’s affairs. Hassan Nasrallah was forced to comply with Iranian al-Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s orders and send more than 8,000 fighters to fight rebels in Syria. More than 2,000 Hizbullah fighters returned in coffins, and twice as many were wounded in the fighting.
When the commander of Hizbullah forces in Syria, Mustafa Badreddine, expressed reservations about Hizbullah’s continued participation in the war in Syria, he was eliminated by Qassem Soleimani with Hassan Nasrallah’s consent. The picture of Mustafa Badreddine, one of Hizbullah’s most important commanders, does not stand together with pictures of Hizbullah’s military commanders at the rallies of the “Day of The Martyred Commanders” alongside Ragheb Harb, Abbas al-Musawi, and Imad Mughniyeh.
Hassan Nasrallah is aware of the weight of responsibility Iran places on his shoulders. The collapse of the central government in Beirut, together with the dysfunction of the government and economic systems, transformed Lebanon from a failed state to a Hizbullah state, where Hizbullah’s alternative system is fully backed by Iran.
Hizbullah refrains from formally taking over the governing structure, and Hassan Nasrallah understands the far-reaching significance of seizing power at Lebanon’s presidential palace in Baabda. At this stage, Iran has geostrategic objectives that prevent it from realizing the vision of turning Lebanon into an Islamic republic as Ayatollah Khomeini commanded. Iran’s immediate goal is to take advantage of the window of opportunity opened by the Biden government and return to the nuclear agreement on Tehran’s terms.
However, the internal processes in Lebanon seem to be advancing at a faster rate than Iran and Hizbullah would like. In this situation, an extreme scenario may arise in which the Lebanese state will fall like a ripe fruit into the hands of Hizbullah, and Iran will realize its vision of taking over Lebanon. The scenarios present the following strategic options:
- Iran will bring warships into the port of Beirut and take it over. Take advantage of Hizbullah’s control of Beirut International Airport and use it as a military airfield for its own purposes. At the same time, it will establish a military airfield in Baalbek.
- Iran will send the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards from Iran and Syria to Lebanon’s Baalbek and Baqaa regions, which will serve as an umbrella for Afghani, Pakistani, Iraqi, and Yemeni Shi’ite militias, which will enter from Syria. These forces were previously invited by Nasrallah to participate in the next war against Israel.
- Hizbullah will threaten that any attacks on Iranian and Shiite forces in Lebanon will result in a response deep inside Israel by its missile arm.
- Hizbullah, with Iran’s support, will increase the production of precision warheads for long and medium-range missiles.
The scenario is extreme. However, given the continued deterioration of the situation in Lebanon, it can be realized, change the regional balance of power, and directly threaten Israel.
* * *
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Military Secretary to the Prime Minister and as chief of staff to the Foreign Minister. He edited the Jerusalem Center eBook Iran: From Regional Challenge to Global Threat. He is the author of Hizbullah: Between Iran and Lebanon, Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University, 2000, four editions.