Manuela Paraipan: Why is the Lebanonization of Hezbollah a chimera?
Tony Badran: This is a rather timely question with the recent unveiling of Hezbollah's so-called new political manifesto.
The conventional wisdom and the dominant interpretation of this document, in the media, is that it signals the “Lebanonization” of the Islamist group and its “evolution” away from Islamist rhetoric and other maximalist positions. In many ways, this is merely a recycling of the old argument put forth by Augustus Richard Norton and others starting in the late 1990s. Both the old theory and its current reincarnation miss the mark, and in fact have been thoroughly discredited and disproved by events.
Manuela Paraipan: How so?
Tony Badran: The Lebanonization theory is an amalgam of various misreadings of Hezbollah.
It was stipulated in the late '90s that Hezbollah was merely concerned with purely Lebanese goals, namely the liberation of southern Lebanon, and that once Israel withdrew, Hezbollah would close shop. Indeed, Norton wrote in 1998 that Hezbollah was “preparing for life after resistance.”
Very clearly, this has been shown to be wrong.
Hezbollah today has dissociated its armed status from an Israeli withdrawal from the disputed Shebaa Farms, and has linked it to Israel's very existence: so long as Israel exists, Hezbollah's reasoning goes, it will constitute a threat to Lebanon, a threat that can only be countered by its continued armed status. At the same time, Hezbollah's manifesto includes the “liberation” of Jerusalem, which the organization describes as a “religious duty.” This duty carries great peril for Lebanon.
In order to support this argument of a purely Lebanese outlook for Hezbollah, its proponents went to great lengths to dissociate the group from any acts of global terrorism. One argument was that since the group had Shiite support and maintained “social networks,” that somehow meant that it can no longer be dubbed a terrorist group.
Furthermore, as I showed almost two years ago, there was a systematic denial on the part of the majority of Hezbollah analysts of any ties between the group and terror mastermind, Imad Mughniyeh.
After Mughniyeh's assassination this façade fell apart as the Party openly hailed him as an exalted member of its triumvirate of “martyred” leaders (along with Abbas Musawi and Ragheb Harb). Furthermore, reports of Hezbollah's involvement in Iraq, the arrest of its cells in Egypt, Azerbaijan, and the foiling of one of its plots in Turkey, not to mention its networks in South America, have all demolished any argument denying Hezbollah's global reach.
Similarly, the Party's openly declared subservience to the Ruling Jurisconsult (al-wali al-faqih) — the Supreme Guide of Iran, Ali Khamenei, as well as they Party's organic ties to the Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), make a mockery of any claim of “Lebanonization.”
In brief, the “Lebanonization” theorists get it exactly backwards. As the Shiite organization's deputy secretary general himself says, Hezbollah seeks to “integrate the rest of society” into its vision and project, not the other way around.
Manuela Paraipan: Could the status quo ever change?
Tony Badran: The precedents aren't encouraging. When Lebanon had a comparable situation with the PLO's parallel state on its soil, that unsustainable situation ended in all-out war. The events of May 2008, in particular, placed Lebanon on a similar path. There is a fundamental difference, of course, in that the rank and file of Hezbollah is comprised of Lebanese citizens, and the organization enjoys strong support in the Shiite community. However, Hezbollah is an essential part of Iran's objective to be the region's primary power. The Shiite organization is part of an ongoing battle for the region, as they themselves say. Their weapons are therefore directly tied to the fate of the Iranian regime and its strategic goals.
Either way, the prospects for Lebanon aren't great.
In the case of an Israeli or American attack on Iran, Hezbollah is likely to be part of the subsequent retaliation, which means that Lebanon will pay a heavy price. In the case Iran goes nuclear, then Hezbollah's arms will have a nuclear umbrella, which renders Lebanon's situation even bleaker.
Tony Badran is a research fellow with the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has the blog Across the Bay.