Iran's projection in Lebanon: Hezbollah

Iran's projected geostrategic interest in Lebanon necessarily involves the institutional empowerment of Hezbollah


The profound economic and managerial collapse of the Lebanese state offers a window of opportunity for Tehran, which is always interested in expanding its sphere of influence in neighbouring countries. On the other hand, countering this international projection is the possibility of rapprochement between the new Biden administration and the Rohani government. The toppling of the Trump administration offers the possibility of rapprochement on the nuclear pact under precepts in line with Tehran's interests, and the drift of political influence in Lebanon may frustrate expectations on this issue.

Lebanon's uncertain economy

Lebanon's economic collapse has led to a deep political polarisation with different camps at odds with each other. The 1989 Taif agreement - which ended the civil war - established a power-sharing formula based on sectarian quotas between the country's three majority cultural groups: Christians, Sunnis and Shiites. Recent political attempts to rid the state of this legacy of sectarianism have been unsuccessful, mainly due to the instability of the weak, weak and fragile established governments.

Last year's brutal explosion in the port of Beirut only served to underline the dire financial situation of the state's accounts, and the whole world witnessed the Lebanese government's ineffective management of the crisis. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that the arms depot where the accident originated belonged to the Lebanese Hezbollah organisation. 

The current economic reality shows that the Central Bank has lost its ability to stabilise the exchange rate of the local currency, as it has crossed the rate of 15,000 Lebanese lira per US dollar, losing 90% of its value since October 2019 .

AFP/ ANWAR AMRO  -   Manifestación frente a la entrada de la Universidad Americana de Beirut, en la calle Bliss de la capital libanesa, el 29 de diciembre de 2020, contra la decisión de varias universidades de adoptar un nuevo tipo de cambio del dólar para fijar el precio de las matrículas
AFP/ ANWAR AMRO  -   Demonstration outside the entrance of the American University of Beirut on Bliss Street in the Lebanese capital, 29 December 2020, against the decision of several universities to adopt a new dollar exchange rate for tuition fees.

In the fourth quarter of 2020, the Lebanese government announced tax hikes on tobacco, gasoline and voice calls via instant messaging apps to increase revenues; however, the violent response of a population on the brink of rebellion forced the cancellation of these plans.

Finally, the pandemic has also had a negative impact on the state's accounts. The measures resulting from the health crisis put in place by the government involved compulsory confinement to mitigate the spread of the disease. Many businesses were forced to lay off staff and inflation further aggravated the situation of families unable to buy even basic necessities.

Iranian projection in Lebanon

On the other hand, in terms of geopolitical strategy, the Islamic Republic of Iran's projected interest in its neighbouring states in the Middle East serves different purposes. First, there is the traditional expectation of the Shia Muslim minority (the majority in Iran) to associate with the interests of their counterpart communities in states such as Lebanon. On the other hand, there are the economic interests that Iran has vested outwards from its western border. The longed-for land corridor linking the cities of Tehran and Beirut would give it a secure route to the Mediterranean, something that would undoubtedly provide Iran with an economic advantage and pre-eminence in the region. Finally, there is the ever-present climate of war inherent in disputes against Israel, as both Hezbollah and Hamas are the main armed militias that, under Iranian patronage, defend their interests on the ground.

Hezbollah's organisation is characterised by a four-fold dimension: political party, resistance militia, terrorist organisation and social organisation. Through sponsorship and resources, mainly from Iran, Hezbollah has managed to have a large security apparatus, act as a political organisation and build a network of social services in Lebanon, where the group is often described as a "state within a state".

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   El presidente iraní Hassan Rohani
PHOTO/REUTERS  -   Hassan Rohani

In Lebanon, Hezbollah is stronger than the Lebanese National Army. Moreover, the Shiite organisation is seen in a wide variety of circles as Iran's army of occupation in the country. Tehran's sponsorship of the organisation has been frowned upon by the United Nations, and the US Treasury Department estimated in 2018 that Iran's financial support for Hezbollah amounted to $700 million annually.

The economic collapse of the Lebanese state has further increased the organisation's influence over the state's political agenda. Hezbollah operates an alternative government separate from the central government in Beirut. It includes an independent economic system, including Hezbollah banks with ATMs; a health system that provides a partial solution to the state's inability to deal with the coronavirus pandemic; an independent education system, including kindergartens, primary and secondary schools; and a system of 32 hawzat (seminaries of religious studies) and social welfare institutions throughout Lebanon. Funding for this comprehensive system, estimated at billions of dollars annually, continues to come from Iran despite sanctions imposed by the international community. Moreover, the Iranian government's traditional stance of publicly hushing up these connections is a long way off. Today, Tehran's pride in possessing external influence over counterpart Shia communities while benefiting from economic and political empowerment beyond its borders has been evidenced in various publicity strategies in recent years.

Such is Hezbollah's influence as a political organisation in Lebanon that a diplomatic delegation travelled to Moscow in March to discuss issues related to the state's economic collapse and to try to build bridges towards a possible solution to the country's political conflict.

The gradual empowerment that Hezbollah has developed over decades in Beirut's political sphere amply satisfies Tehran's pretensions. The current crisis situation in the political and economic spheres only increases the range of possibilities for the organisation to act and further entrenches Iranian meddling in Lebanese political affairs.

However, the Rohani government's expansionist drift must be cautious for two fundamental reasons.

AFP/JOSEPH EID - Manifestantes libaneses marchan con un modelo de la Cúpula de la Roca, junto con sus banderas nacionales y las banderas de Palestina durante una protesta en Beirut contra el reconocimiento de Jerusalén como capital de Israel por parte de EEUU

Firstly, the new Biden Administration offers an opportunity for the two states to meet again on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the international agreement between the West and Tehran to limit Iran's nuclear programme). In fact, in relation to this issue, Iranian diplomacy issued a press release on 15 March in which it opened the door to a possible rapprochement between the two sides. However, mutual distrust and continued tension have led Tehran in recent weeks to strengthen its diplomatic relations with the United States' main commercial enemy: China.

Secondly, the impending general elections in Iran mean that any foreign policy action may result in a significant part of the electorate moving in one direction or the other. We should not forget that the Iranian regime holds on to power with limited support. The faction of voters who are against Rohani's reformism is important and any misstep in foreign policy may be reflected in the public's voting intentions.

In conclusion

It is undeniable that the Tehran government's external projection has brought it numerous economic and political benefits in recent years. International reproaches have not dampened its strategy and Hezbollah's empowerment of Beirut's political agenda, under Iranian patronage, is a reality that is difficult to undermine in the short term.

On the other side of the coin is Iran's always difficult relationship with the Washington administration. Despite difficult relations with the Trump administration and some events that border on war - for example, the assassination of Qassem Soleimani - it seems that Tehran opens the door to resuming the agenda of its nuclear programme with the presence of the United States at the negotiating table.

It does not seem feasible for Rohani to take advantage of Lebanon's political-economic fracture to further project Iran abroad, while seeking rapprochement with the US government. Washington actively condemns the external influence of state actors through organisations such as Hezbollah, which it has labelled as terrorist.

Iran must choose and it must do so in light of the uncertainty surrounding the impending national elections. There is always a real possibility that Rohani and Iran's reformist faction will be out of government and state administration in the short term.

Miguel Ángel García-Fraile Hernández: Historian and Collaborating Analyst of Sec2Crime's Armed Conflicts Area.