An official Hezbollah delegation, headed by Lebanese Parliament member Mohammad Ra’ad, arrived in Moscow on Monday for a three-day visit at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s invitation. Hezbollah representatives met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov; his deputy, Mikhail Bogdanov, President Vladimir Putin’s representative to the Middle East; the national security adviser; and members of the Duma, 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 and threatening the checks and balances underlying the sectarian government system that has existed in Lebanon since 1943.
In the background, the Lebanese economy is collapsing. The Lebanese lira has lost 90 percent of its value since October 2019. The decline in living conditions in Lebanon has already led to angry demonstrations in Beirut that threaten the stability of the state.
At the same time, Hezbollah operates an alternative governmental system, separate from the central government in Beirut. It includes an independent economic system, including Hezbollah banks with ATMs, as well as a health system that provides a partial solution to the state’s inability to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. There is an independent education system, which includes kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools; a scouts framework; 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 economic sanctions imposed on it. In the words of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah: “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.”
Iran’s maintenance of Hezbollah in Lebanon does not stem from any altruistic motive. Large parts of the Shi’ite community are faithful to the theological principle of Velâyat-e Faqih, which views Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the political and religious guardian and 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 Hezbollah’s affairs. Nasrallah was forced to comply with then-Iranian Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s orders and send more than 8,000 fighters to Syria. More than 2,000 returned in coffins, and twice as many were wounded in the fighting.
When the commander of Hezbollah forces in Syria, Mustafa Badreddine, expressed reservations about Hezbollah’s continued participation in the war in Syria, he was eliminated by Soleimani, with Nasrallah’s consent. There is no portrait of Badreddine, one of Hezbollah’s most important commanders, among the pictures on display during the “Day of The Martyred Commanders,” alongside Ragheb Harb, Abbas al-Musawi and Imad Mughniyeh.
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 Hezbollah state, where Hezbollah’s alternative system is fully backed by Iran.
Hezbollah refrains from formally taking over the governing structure, and 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 administration 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 Hezbollah would like. In this situation, an extreme scenario may arise in which the Lebanese state will fall into Hezbollah’s hands like a ripe fruit, enabling Iran to realize its vision of taking over the country. That scenario presents Iran with the following strategic options:
• Bringing warships into the Port of Beirut and taking it over, taking advantage of Hezbollah’s control of Beirut International Airport to use it as a military airfield, while at the same time establishing a military airfield in Baalbek.
• Sending the Quds Force from Iran and Syria to Lebanon’s Baalbek and Baqaa regions, to 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.
Hezbollah would threaten that any attacks on Iranian and Shi’ite forces in Lebanon would result in missile strikes deep inside Israel, and, with Iran’s support, increase the production of precision warheads for long- and medium-range missiles.
The scenario is extreme, but given the continued deterioration of the situation in Lebanon, not impossible. Such a development would alter the regional balance of power and directly threaten Israel.
IDF Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as military secretary to the prime minister and as Israel’s Foreign Ministry chief of staff. He is the editor of the Jerusalem Center eBook “Iran: From Regional Challenge to Global Threat.”
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.