May 22, 2014 | Now Lebanon

Hezbollah’s Foreign Origins

This Sunday, Hezbollah will celebrate “Liberation Day,” commemorating Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah has created many myths that it tailored around its war with Israel, but particularly curious is the manner in which it has used Israel in weaving the narrative about its own birth. Thus, according to the conventional account, carefully fostered by Hezbollah, the organization was founded as a response to the Israeli invasion of 1982. In fact, were it not for the invasion, the claim goes, it’s unclear if Hezbollah would have emerged at all in the way it has.

But in a special interview with Al-Mayadeen TV last Friday on the occasion of the upcoming “Liberation Day,” Hezbollah’s second in command, Naim Qassem, while generally sticking to the script, offered details that undermine the conventional narrative about the group’s genesis and Iran’s role in it. “The founding of Hezbollah was tied to the Israeli invasion,” Qassem told Al-Mayadeen. “But the invasion was not the reason it was formed.” With this statement, Qassem not only undercut a narrative dutifully promulgated by journalists and academics for years, but also he contradicted his own boss, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.

In statements a couple of years after the Israeli withdrawal, Nasrallah had emphasized that “the basis for the foundation of Hezbollah goes back to the circumstances of the Israeli enemy’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. … If we go to the direct reason, [it’s] the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.”  

In fact, Qassem explained, 1982 may have seen the “practical founding” of Hezbollah, but this was preceded by a “theoretical” one. As I’ve chronicled in an essay on this period in Hezbollah’s history, the pre-1982 genesis is related to the network of Iranian revolutionary cadres, especially those loyal to Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, who were operating in Lebanon in the 1970s. These activists were working to recruit young Shiites who submit to Khomeini’s leadership and religious authority (marja’iya). Many of these Iranian operatives were also involved in teaching, indoctrination, and spreading Khomeini’s message.

One Iranian Khomeinist preacher, Sayyed Issa Tabatabai, who was active in Lebanon in the mid-1970s was acknowledged by Nasrallah in an address last October. Tabatabai, who headed various Iranian institutions in Lebanon, played an important role in the recruitment and preparation of young Shiites who became Hezbollah members. The familiarity of the Khomeinist cadres with Lebanon and the acquaintance of the Lebanese Khomeinist activists with them belie Qassem’s contention in the interview that “our arena did not have knowledge of Imam Khomeini and his movement in Iran and Iraq.”

However, in response to a question about how Hezbollah got its name, Qassem inadvertently underscored these interactions, and the inseparability of Hezbollah and the Iranian revolution. Qassem had addressed the subject of Hezbollah’s name before in his book, but had omitted a detail he revealed in the interview. “Six months after the party’s formation, the idea of ‘Hezbollah’ began to emerge from the base. The name was in emulation of Hezbollah which existed in Iran.”

Qassem is quite right: Hezbollah in Lebanon was a clone of Hezbollah in Iran. But the Iranian Hezbollah had a very specific meaning in the Iranian political context in the critical period between 1979 and 1981. Soon after Khomeini returned to Iran in 1979, his devotees – many of which were operating in Lebanon in the 1970s – and other radical clergy formed the Islamic Republic party. They began calling themselves Hezbollah, and by the summer of 1981, the Islamic Republic party had finally defeated its domestic rivals – who had been allied with Musa Sadr and the Amal movement – and now controlled the government, which it called “the Hezbollahi government.”

Qassem explained that Khomeini “considered all the people as Hezbollah. They would be guided through the mosques. That is, the scholars (‘ulama) would take the Imam’s ideas, his political position, and mobilize the people.” In fact, the mobilization through the mosques that Qassem described was done through other structures and bodies aligned with or run by the Islamic Republic party, like the Revolutionary Committees. Not coincidentally, in 1978-79 the cadres that went on to become Hezbollah formed in Lebanon the parallel “committees in support of the Islamic Revolution.” The Iranian Committees were organized by the Association of Militant Clergy, among whose founding members were Ali Khamenei and Mohammad Beheshti, the secretary general of the Islamic Republic party, who was killed in 1981. The Association was likewise cloned in Lebanon as the “Militant Clergy in Lebanon,” which organized pro-Khomeini rallies.

“Hezbollah,” Qassem went on to say, “was this popular condition.” In reality, the Islamic Republic party – Hezbollah – wielded power in the streets through gangs of thugs who were called Hezbollahis. They were run by a radical young protégé of Khomeini, who also had been in Lebanon in 1978, called Hadi Ghaffari. His Hezbollahi gangs would attack demonstrators, newspapers critical of the revolutionary government, and political opponents. In an image that rings a bell in Lebanon, the Hezbollahis would also ride through the streets on their motorbikes with their flags and banners. It is also easy to see how the practices of the Hezbollahis mirror those of its Lebanese clone, as evident in the murder of activist Hashem Salman, all the way to thecampaign against NOW managing editor, Hanin Ghaddar – for plainly describing Hezbollah as the thugs they are.

Qassem’s disclosure that Hezbollah was an emulation of its Iranian predecessor was accurate, only not in the way he spun it. With his comments in the interview commemorating “Liberation Day,” Qassem actually illuminated, more than he realized, the Iranian context and structures Hezbollah emerged from, as well as the group’s true nature.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.