By Track Perisa
August 22, 2019
Relations between Iranians and Lebanese developed in the sixteenth century when the Safavid rulers declared Shiite Islam as the religion of their empire. The relationships between Arab Lebanese clerics and Safavid rulers developed when these clerics migrated to the Persian empire on invitation from their rulers who wanted to galvanise their rule and project themselves as divine. Conversely, the Lebanese clerics, such as al-Karaki, chose to migrate to Safavid Persia to take a refuge from the Sunni Ottomans.
The Shiite ideology of wilayat al-faqih (the guardianship of a cleric to rule) which the Iranian theocracy has been based on since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, was invented by the Shiite Lebanese cleric al-Karaki who declared that Shiite clerics were the deputies of the hidden, or twelfth imam, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who went into hiding for his own protection in the ninth century and who is expected by the Shiite faithful to return as the Mahdi, or messiah, to bring justice to the world. This means that during the absence of the hidden imam, senior Shiite clerics can rule on his behalf and can issue political fatwas.
Relations between Iranian and Lebanese clerics continues, despite there have been divisions following Iran’s late Supreme Leader and the Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah in 1979 and the clerics have since become de facto rulers in Iran.
Iran and Fadhlallah: The fluctuating enmity
The Arab Shiite Lebanese cleric Ayatollah Hussein Fadhlallah (d. 2010) was preferred by many Lebanese Shiites, including a number of Hezbollah members, over Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as their source of emulation. Fadhlallah who was born in Iraq’s Najaf and moved to Beirut in 1966, built a number of religious, commercial, and social welfare institutions in Lebanon. However, he distanced himself from Iran after Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. He did not accept the ideology of Khomeini’s version of wilayat al-faqih, which Khomeini developed to be the base of the ruling in Iran. He did not recognise Khomeini’s authority, nor the authority of Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as religious and political leaders.
Fadhlallah rejected that a cleric should have absolute power on an executive and a religious level. He believed that fair elections should be the only means of producing a leader. His stance in this respect led him to criticise the existence of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that one of its jobs is electing a supreme leader. It is worth noting that candidates of this body must pass vetting process by a group largely appointed by the supreme leader himself. Fadlallah was proud of himself for being an Arab marja (senior cleric with following) and he used to refer to himself as the Arab marja.
However, Fadhlallah tried to improve his relationship with Iranian clerics in the few years before his death because he was influenced by the Sunni-Shiite divisions in Lebanon resulted from the assassination of Lebanon’s former PM Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and war Lebanon war with Israel in 2006, whose consequences were accused of and blamed on the Shiite Hezbollah by Sunni Lebanese. That made Fadhlallah focusing on supporting fellow Hezbollah, against the United States and Israel, despite the divisions. Fadhlallah was sometimes called the “spiritual mentor” of Hezbollah, although this was disputed by some sources.
Hezbollah: Iran’s powerful proxy
Hezbollah was founded in the early 1980s as part of an Iranian effort to aggregate a variety of militant Lebanese Shiite groups into a unified organization. The leader of Iran’s revolution, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, saw the ideology of the revolution as one that would spread beyond Iran, and actively sought to export the revolution.
Even though Iran was still in the throes of war with Iraq, it dispatched 1,500 of its Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in 1982. The Guards recruited and trained young men from three Lebanese Shiite groups—Da’wa, Islamic Amal, and the Lebanese Union of Muslim Students—to defend Lebanon’s Shiites against Israel and to project Iranian influence. Since its formation, Hezbollah has been led by radical Shiite clerics. It is currently led by Hasan Nasrallah who follows Ayatollah Khamenei.
When the 1975–90 civil war and periodic Israeli bombing devastated Shiite area in south Beirut, Iran sent support to Hezbollah to re-build the infrastructure of its damaged areas. Iran also increased its aid to Hezbollah as Arab peace talks with Israel collapsed.
Hezbollah waged a guerrilla campaign in South Lebanon and as a result, Israel withdrew from Lebanon on 24 May 2000. After the 2006 war, Iran helped Hezbollah to rebuild the affected infrastructure in its stronghold. According to a US Treasury report, Hezbollah received $100 million to $200 million a year in Iranian funds transmitted from 2001 to 2006 by Iran’s central bank through Bank Saderat. Hezbollah’s leader Hasan Nasrallah was not shy to declare that his party was entirely funded by Iranian cash.
Last year, the United State under President Donald Trump administration withdrew from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, also was signed by other five world powers. The administration also re-imposed the US sanction on Iran because of its involvement in the conflicts Iraq, Syria and Yemen. That has affected Iran’s funding to Hezbollah which has now turned to his own means of funding including money laundering and drug trade
Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria to support the dictatorship of the President Bashar Asad along with other Iran’s Shiite proxies has made Hezbollah’s paramilitary wing more powerful than the Lebanese Army. Hezbollah is currently seen as a “state within a state”. It has grown into an organization with seats in the Lebanese government, a radio and a satellite TV station, social services and large-scale military deployment of fighters beyond Lebanon’s borders.