The Islamic Republic relies on the Lebanese Hezbollah foot soldiers to carry out its policies in Syria. (IranWire)

By Parvaneh Masoumi

March 19, 2018

A rift has emerged between Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah following comments made by Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. In a speech, the Hezbollah leader highlighted differences of opinion regarding the ousting of  Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and the former Egyptian president. In an apparent bid to prevent Arabic audiences from accessing the speech, an Iranian-backed Arabic language website removed it from its website only days after publishing it.

Speaking to a group of Iranians, Nasrallah was effusive in his praise for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and of the institution of Velayat-e Faqih or the “Guardianship of Islamic Jurist,” the founding principle of the Islamic Republic. But he also revealed — perhaps inadevertently — that when it came to Morsi and events surrounding his overthrow, Hezbollah and Khamenei had not always agreed. The speech [Persian link] was published on March 10 by Al-Kawthar TV, an Arabic-language launched by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) in 2006 to promote Shia Islam among Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa. However, it was removed from the site shortly after, with no explanation given. (The text used here was archived by Google.) One news agency that published a report of the speech denied that Nasrollah had made such comments.

It is difficult to find two allies as close as the Islamic Republic of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Iran relies on Hezbollah to provide foot soldiers in Syria and, according to some reports, in Iraq too — a strategic location from which to threaten Israel. In turn, Iran has helped Hezbollah to become the dominant military force in Lebanon by providing it with weaponry, training and funds. After the United States placed Hezbollah and its affiliates on its sanctions list in late 2015, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah announced: “We do not have any business projects or investments via banks, so this action will not affect us. We are open about the fact that Hezbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, come from the Islamic Republic of Iran…As long as Iran has money, we will have money.” But his recent speech suggests a more complex relationship,  one perhaps less solid and more easily damaged by the the volatility of Middle Eastern politics than previously assumed.

The Sin of Disagreement

When elections were to be held in Egypt in 2012, said Nasrollah in his speech, a headquarters was set up in Tehran and “we helped to get Mr. Morsi elected.” Morsi was elected as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and took up office in June 2012. In July 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed Morsi in a coup d’état.

Nasrollah confessed that leaders of Hezbollah were very “happy” about the “uprising of the Egyptian people” that led to Morsi’s downfall a year after he was elected and that he did not believe in Morsi “because he performed badly.”

After Morsi was removed, said Nasrollah, “a friend called from Tehran and said: ‘we have a meeting with [Ayatollah Khamenei]’. He asked our opinion and we expressed our happiness and our view was conveyed” to Khamenei.

He said he then called and asked for Khamenei’s view. “I was told that he was very unhappy.”

“It was a painful event,” Khamenei told Nasrollah’s friend. “Yes, they [Muslim Brotherhood] made mistakes but, after 80 years, it was an Egyptian experiment that failed.”

Nasrollah added that he and his “friends” cried after they heard the opinion of the Iranian Supreme Leader. “We repented. A few months later I paid him [Khamenei] a visit. ‘Forgive us,’ I said. ‘I made a mistake. Forgive us.’ I cried and asked for forgiveness and said: ‘We committed a sin.’”

When Morsi was elected, the Palestinian group Hamas expected him to reverse the policies of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which destroyed supply and smuggling channels from the Sinai peninsula to Gaza. But Morsi continued these policies and in some instances even redirected the sewage from the Sinai area into the tunnels. At the time, Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar reacted to Morsi’s policies by accusing him of trying to starve Gaza.

In August 2012, Morsi traveled to Tehran to take part in the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Nations. During one session, Morsi attacked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even then a strong ally of the Islamic Republic, by warning that the “oppressive” Syrian regime had lost all its legitimacy, and urging the world to support Syria’s rebels. This, of course, did not sit well with Iranian officials.

Why the Censorship?

However, when translating the Morsi speech, Iran’s state televisionaltered some words, replacing “Syria” with “Bahrain.” Following this tampering by Iranian media, Hamad Al Amer, the foreign affairs under-secretary for regional and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) affairs, summoned the Iranian charge d’affaires and presented him with a formal statement of protest. But Ezzatolah Zarghami, the head of IRIB, shrugged off the protest and dismissed the mistranslation as a simple “mistake” on behalf of the translator and insisted that the mistake had then been used by Western media to attack Iran.

But many observers regarded the mistranslation as intentional, especially given the fact that there had been similar incidents in the past, such as the translation of “Arab spring” as “Islamic awakening”.

So why did Al-Kawthar and other Iranian media remove any mention of Nasrollah’s speech? Of course, they probably did not want to reveal the rift over Morsi, but there may be other reasons. Al Arabiya TV reported that Nasrollah came under intense criticism in Lebanon because it appeared that he was saying in his speech that Velayat-e Faqih is above the Lebanese constitution, and that it was mandatory to implement its orders. Al Arabiya also claimed that many Lebanese people had shared old videos of Nasrallah in which he says he hopes that Lebanon would become part of the “Greater Islamic Republic.”

Iranian authorities might also have been unhappy that, yet again, Nasrollah revealed that Iran is the main supplier of all its needs, making it difficult for the Islamic Republic to deny involvement.

And there may be other reasons for removing Nasrollah’s speech. At the same time,  the logic of Iran censoring a speech that overflows with praise for the Islamic Republic and Velayat-e Faqih — and therefore presents Hezbollah as being for the most part under the control of Iran — remains an elusive mystery for now.

What is certain is that the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah need each other, badly. If, down the line, another rift arises, there is no doubt that Hassan Nasrallah will once again be prepared to cry and ask for forgiveness from the Supreme Leader.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.