May 20, 2016
Following the mysterious death of Hezbollah senior military commander Mustafa Badreddine in Syria last week, speculation continues to swirl over the identity of his possible successor. The prevailing theory holds that this role will fall to Ibrahim Aqil and/or Fuad Shukr, ranking members of Hezbollah’s military council and veterans of the group and its security apparatus. However, a report in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Tuesday, citing anonymous Lebanese sources, claimed that Hezbollah had decided to name Mustafa Mughniyeh, the son of its former military commander, Imad Mughniyeh, as Badreddine’s replacement.
Mustafa’s brother Jihad was killed last year in an Israeli strike while in a convoy with senior Iranian and Hezbollah officials in Quneitra. Unlike Jihad, who was frequently seen in public and in photographs, little is known about Mustafa.
According to Israeli researcher Ronen Solomon, Mustafa was close to his recently departed uncle, Mustafa Badreddine, and may have been involved in his security detail (Imad Mughniyeh and his brother at one point handled security for the late Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah). Elsewhere in the Arabic press, it was alleged that Mustafa Mughniyeh had been assigned the Golan Heights front following his brother’s demise. This decision was supposedly made by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.
The mention of Soleimani in this context is curious. The notorious Iranian general had seemingly takenthe late Jihad Mughniyeh under his wing. Jihad, who had been sent to Iran, was seen glued to Soleimani at the funeral of the general’s mother in 2013. A report in the state-run Fars News at the time described Soleimani’s displays of affection toward the young man, and noted that Jihad stood “like a son” next to Soleimani. Following Jihad’s assassination, the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei released photos of Jihad meeting and embracing Khamenei.
The Mughniyeh family’s history with the Iranians goes back to the earliest days, even before the victory of the Islamic revolution. When Imad Mughniyeh was himself a teen in Lebanon, he was recruited by the revolutionaries who would later seize power in Iran and form the IRGC. The Iranians have put up a gravestone for Mughniyeh in Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahra cemetery and issued a stamp commemorating him. It is therefore easy to understand why the Iranian leadership played up the image of young Jihad.
Although Jihad got all the publicity, he wasn’t the only son of the founding Hezbollah commanders to receive Soleimani’s attention. When Hassan Laqqis, another senior commander from the first generation of Hezbollah cadres, was killed outside his Beirut apartment in 2013, it came out that his son, Hussein, was also a possible subject of Iranian interest. He, too, went to Iran, where a ceremony was held for his fallen father (who used to be an aide to Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, back when he led the IRGC in Lebanon), and he also posed for pictures with Soleimani.
Lastly, the pro-Hezbollah media outfit Al Akhbar claimed, in a rather hagiographic report on Monday, that when Soleimani paid his respects to the Badreddine family in their Beirut home, he allegedly told Badreddine’s son, Ali, “you will follow your father’s path and become, like him, a model to your generation and to all young men.”
Now, Ali is still a boy, and this story could simply be an addition to Hezbollah’s lore of martyrology. However, leaving aside that these are the sons of the first generation of Hezbollah commanders who have become legends to the party faithful, the idea of the Iranians directly cultivating young cadres is hardly fanciful or even new. After all, Jihad Mughniyeh was 16 years old when his father was killed and he was thrust into the limelight. And in fact his father Imad himself was in his teens when he was working with the Iranians in the late 1970’s. The Iranians cultivated him into the closest and most loyal asset.
The case of Hassan Nasrallah is also instructive in how the Iranians have directly shaped the leadership of Hezbollah. In 1989, Nasrallah left Lebanon for Iran, where Ali Akbar Mohtashami, the former Iranian ambassador to Syria and a critical figure in establishing Hezbollah, brought the 29-year old Nasrallah to Khamenei, who took him in as a protégé. Later that same year, Khamenei succeeded Ruhollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader. And three years later, when Hezbollah’s then-secretary general Abbas Musawi was assassinated, Nasrallah was named as the new chief, bypassing older members.
Which brings us back to Mustafa Mughniyeh. Whether he will take on a senior role, let alone serve as Badreddine’s replacement, is not yet clear. Still, there is very good reason to believe that he is being promoted by the Iranians.
“With the big first-tier leaders like Mughniyeh and Badreddine now dead, only a limited number of commanders from the founding generation remain,” notes Israeli Hezbollah expert Shimon Shapira. “Now these remaining veterans like Aqil and Shukr and Talal Hamiyeh will form the new chain of command.” The new generation of Mustafa Mughniyeh, Shapira adds, “still lacks experience and operational capabilities.”
However, tying the offspring of the first generation to Soleimani, and advertising their rise in the party’s command structure, provides a sense of continuity through their genealogy and legendary family names.
As I wrote in “The Secret History of Hezbollah,” Iran always determined the structure and hierarchy of Hezbollah, “the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon.” And as the veteran commanders of the first generation disappear, the Iranians are cultivating their sons to continue on their fathers’ path.