As officials in Lebanon continue their investigation into the devastating explosion at the Beirut port, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been quick to deny any responsibility claiming the explosion “has nothing to do” with the group. “We don’t rule the port or administrate it … nor do we know what’s going on there … our responsibility is resistance [against Israel].” In reality, both the United States and Israel believe that Hezbollah controls much of the port as well as Beirut’s airport, both conduits for weapon transfers from its patron Iran.
Nasrallah’s comments come amid mounting anger among ordinary Lebanese at the negligence, corruption and mismanagement of successive Lebanese governments, in which Hezbollah is a dominant player that has allowed an enormous stash of combustible ammonium nitrate to sit at Beirut’s port for more than six years. The port warehouse that exploded on Aug. 4, held 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate—a chemical used for fertilizer and as an ingredient in bombs. To put that in perspective, Timothy McVeigh used about 2.4 tons of the same chemical in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
So who in Lebanon could have an interest in keeping such vast quantities of explosive material close at hand?
“We have nothing in the port: not an arms depot, nor a missile depot nor missiles nor rifles nor bombs nor bullets nor ammonium nitrate,” protested Nasrallah. Despite his desperate attempts to distance the group from this tragic blast, most Lebanese will assume that the ammonium nitrate belonged to the militia for use in Syria and against Israel. As their grieving turns to outrage, Hezbollah is expected to be the people’s target.
And that is leading many to conclude that this explosion will deter the Iran-backed terrorist group from aggressive action, at least for a while. According to Haaretz’s defense analyst Amos Harel, “For Hezbollah, Beirut’(s) devastation makes provoking Israel even riskier … (Lebanese) public pressure may lead to a real attempt to demilitarize.’ The conventional wisdom is that Hezbollah’s leader and Iran are in no position to confront Israel now. But a wounded animal is far more dangerous … .”
With fury directed at Hezbollah, could it revert to the tried-and-tested response of terrorist organizations and authoritarian regimes, and try and turn the people’s attention away from its own incompetence and complicity, and scapegoat its opponents? Nothing works better in the Arab world than to blame Israel, or better yet, escalate violence by provoking an Israeli response that will assuredly kill Lebanese civilians who are used as human shields. Hezbollah’s modus operandi is to stockpile munitions and missiles in civilian areas, intentionally placing innocent citizens in harm’s way. Israel has long warned that it will strike if its security is threatened, so could Hezbollah try and force Israel into the fray, and divert the anger elsewhere?
Some see a parallel and historical precedent for another popular uprising of the Lebanese people against Hezbollah. In 2005, Hezbollah and Syria assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, precipitating the Cedar Revolution, a mass movement of the Lebanese people that forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon. Two movements arose, the March 14 coalition lead by Rafic’s son, Raad, with Western and Sunni backing, faced off against the opposing March 8 coalition movement backed by Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.
In 2006, Hezbollah instigated the Second Lebanon War by killing eight Israeli soldiers and abducting two others. During the 33-day war, Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel; the Israelis retaliated and devastated Lebanon. Hezbollah remained the dominant force in Lebanon and over time gained more military strength, while effectively increasing its control and participation in the Lebanese government.
As the Lebanese government investigates the cause of the massive explosion at the port, will it look at itself in the mirror? Will it see its own corruption and acquiescence, allowing Hezbollah to control Beirut’s airport and ports, permitting the Lebanese Armed Forces to become a shell of an army, cowed by Hezbollah, Syria and Iran? Its incompetence and weakness leave its fate and potential war with Israel in the hands of Hezbollah and Iran.
If these growing protests do lead to more pressure against the Lebanese government, the chaos and anarchy that may follow could actually serve Hezbollah’s interest, with Lebanese society retreating to their warring camps of the March 8 and March 14 movements. This would then circumvent the potential for a large Lebanese consensus to come together against Hezbollah and its Iranian patron.
And to be clear, it is Iran that ultimately pulls the strings. Although Hezbollah is the dominant player in Lebanon, it is not an independent actor. Hezbollah is better viewed as a division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; its leader follows the explicit orders of the Iranian ayatollah based on the religious doctrine of Twelver Shi’ism that gives ultimate authority to the Supreme Leader in Iran.
How the Beirut port blast will affect Iran’s master plan to convert tens of thousands of Hezbollah’s conventional missiles into precision-guided projectiles that could overwhelm Israel’s multi-layered missile defenses, and accurately strike its most vital security and infrastructure locations, is not known.
However, Hezbollah may decide to make lemonade out of lemons, and utilize this as an opportunity for Iran to transfer precision systems into Lebanon under the guise of humanitarian shipments avoiding the inevitable Israeli attacks. If Iran brings game-changing weapons directly into Lebanon—smuggled along with aid deliveries—Israel would not dare act, knowing the reaction of the world in light of the suffering of the Lebanese people. Yet in time, Israel could be forced to strike to stop weapons transfers it deems game-changers, escalating the chance for war.
Before the explosion, Hezbollah was increasing its activities on Israel’s northern border with terror cells probing multiple locations and provoking fire from Israel’s army. A Western perspective has claimed that the combination of the ongoing economic devastation of Iran’s and Lebanon’s economies by the coronavirus, coupled with the U.S. sanctions campaign against Iran, have reduced Tehran’s ability to fund its proxy armies, decreasing chances for confrontation. However, this explosion has now made the region even more volatile, and the Beirut chaos may increase the possibility of violence spiraling out of control. As Seth Franzman wrote in National Review, “If Hezbollah does capitalize on this disaster, it will only accelerate Lebanon’s economic collapse, and hold the country hostage in a future war with Israel.”
If the pressure against Hezbollah from Lebanon’s Sunni, Druze and Christian citizens for storing munitions in civilian areas escalates, will Hezbollah and Tehran back off and opt away from confrontation, or will they conclude that a northern war with Israel is their best bet to deflect the fury burying their incompetence in the lives of the human shields that will inevitably pay the price?
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”
Michelle Makori is an internationally acclaimed television journalist, news anchor, reporter and producer. Most recently, she was the lead anchor and editor-in-chief at i24News. Makori has also worked as an anchor and reporter for Bloomberg, CNN Money, CGTN and SABC.
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