Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, has carefully cultivated a personality cult, a central tenet of which is that his word is always true. However, in a speech on the recent anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Nasrallah engaged in dizzying revisionism as he explained one of Khomeini’s most problematic doctrines: the export of the Islamic Revolution.
It was in itself telling, and natural, that this was the facet of Khomeini’s legacy that Nasrallah chose to emphasize. After all, exporting revolution is what lies behind Hezbollah’s very existence. And yet to hear Nasrallah describe it, Iran’s policy was solely destined to spread universal values – “the values of the great prophets of God,” as he put it – through preaching to the oppressed of the earth, who would then be free to find inspiration in these values or not.
According to Nasrallah, “badly-intentioned people” have sought to distort Khomeini’s position by claiming that he intended to dispatch Revolutionary Guards and volunteers “in order to topple regimes and impose values and ideas.” Nasrallah’s notion that there was a rigid dichotomy between Iranian proselytizing and paramilitary activities was in striking contradiction to what Iran’s constitution itself says.
Take this passage from the document’s preamble: “The Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC] … will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world (this is in accordance with the Koranic verse, ‘Prepare against them whatever force you are able to muster…’)”.
So, the IRGC is, in fact, a central actor in exporting the revolution. Early on, Mohammad Montazeri (whose father was among the leading Iranian figures behind the idea of creating Hezbollah) and Mehdi Hashemi set up units and offices in the IRGC that dealt with global revolution and the support for “liberation movements” abroad. It was Montazeri who first organized the sending of “volunteers” to Lebanon in 1979 – a prelude to the 1,500 Revolutionary Guards members who followed in 1982. These Pasdaran units provided integrated military and ideological training to Hezbollah’s cadres.
Indeed, the party’s flag once displayed the proclamation “The Islamic Revolution in Lebanon” alongside the previously-mentioned Koranic verse quoted in the Iranian constitution, which remains emblazoned on the Hezbollah flag (and on the IRGC’s emblem) as a reminder of what Hezbollah’s origins and mission are. Similarly, “jihad in the path of God” is what Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, has described as Hezbollah’s guiding project.
Needless to say, Nasrallah neglected to mention the IRGC’s role when discussing Hezbollah’s establishment. And that was not the only thing he omitted. In discussing the supposedly universal values exported by Khomeini, Nasrallah, tellingly, failed to mention any of Lebanon’s senior Shia clerics, many of whom openly took issue with several of Khomeini’s doctrines, especially that of the Guardianship of the Jurist (Wilayat al-Faqih), whereby supreme political authority is vested in the hands of a leading member of the clergy, or jurist. For Nasrallah, there is only one source of religious reference for his party’s actions, the jurist himself, and the secretary general vowed loyalty to Khomeini’s legacy and to his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Nasrallah’s devotion to Khomeini’s vision has led him to disregard not only Lebanese Shia religious tradition, but also the Iranian people, who last year revolted against their regime with chants of “Death to Khamenei.” Such manifestations Nasrallah has dismissed as a “conspiracy” against what he has dubbed a “modern Islamic system” whose “rope is connected to God.” In this context, Nasrallah’s praise of Khomeini’s championing of the “oppressed” rings rather hollow.
The Islamic Revolution’s pan-Islamic appeal has been largely limited to Shia. Indeed, Hezbollah has proven to be one of the revolution’s only real success stories. And that hasn’t been due to Khomeini’s ideas, but to Hezbollah’s military power.
In his speech, Nasrallah emphasized one point to his audience. The secretary general explained that “the most important value revived by the Imam was the culture of resistance … and the most significant major cause … was that of Palestine.” What was important was for “this culture to spread in our Arab and Islamic countries.”
In tangible terms it is easy to grasp what this implies, and puts to rest the idea that exporting the revolution has no military component, or that it poses no threat to the security of Arab states. An illustrative test case would be Hezbollah’s recent operations in Egypt.
As a hybrid ideological and military entity, Hezbollah is the embodiment of what exporting revolution means. Hassan Nasrallah’s professed allegiance to the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic and his total identification with its institutions, discourse and politico-ideological objectives puts the lie to the notion that Hezbollah is an independent Lebanese actor, let alone that it has “evolved” from what it was intentionally created to be into something different.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies