Prior to the rise of the Shia in Iraq, Hezbollah — as a radical Shiite Islamist organization — was Iran’s main asset in the Arab world. In fact, it likely will continue to be used by Tehran as a
key tool for furthering Iranian geopolitical interests in the region, until such time as Shiite power has been consolidated in Baghdad and Iran’s interests there secured.
In its earliest days, Hezbollah was a classic militant organization — the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the elite unit of the Iranian military. It was founded as a way to
export the ideals of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini’s Islamic revolution to the Shiite community of Lebanon, and served as a model for follow-on organizations (some even using the same name) in other Arab states. It did not take long, however, for Hezbollah to emerge in Lebanon as a guerrilla movement, whose fighters were trained in conventional military tactics.
In the mid-1980s, Iran’s premier intelligence agency, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), assumed the task of managing Tehran’s militant assets — not just in the Middle East but in other parts of the world as well. This allowed the Iranians, through a special unit within MOIS, to strike at Israeli interests in places as diverse as Latin America and Southeast Asia.
The relationship between MOIS and Hezbollah remains a subject worthy of study in light of the current situation in Lebanon. Of course, Iran has been Hezbollah’s chief source of funding and weapons over the years, and the Iranians continue to supply extensive training in weapons, tactics, communications, surveillance and other methods to the militant wing of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The relationship is sufficiently close that the Hezbollah branch in Iran proper recently declared it would unleash militant
attacks against Israelis and Americans around the world if given the order by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Tehran insists that Hezbollah is not an arm of official policy.)
We have previously discussed the possibility that Hezbollah might be moved to seize hostages or engage in other militant acts, given the pressure the Israelis now are bringing to bear. There is some
question, of course, as to whether Iran might be involved in future militant operations — and if so, what assets it might use and the modalities that would apply.
An Organizational Model
There is a division of labor of sorts in the way that Iran manages its foreign assets: The IRGC (which is led by a professional military officer with strong ideological credentials as an Islamist) oversees the Lebanese Hezbollah, while MOIS (which almost always is headed by a cleric) manages militant operatives and groups in other parts of the Muslim world — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, India. Moreover, MOIS also maintains contacts among the Shiite immigrant populations in non-Muslim countries, including those in the West.
It also is important to note that radical Shiite Islamist ideology is only one factor that shapes Tehran’s decisions. Ethnicity and nationalism also play an important role in Iran’s dealings with Shiite allies of Arab, South Asian and other descent. The Persians claim a rich cultural heritage, which they view as superior to that of the Arabs. This attitude impacts the level of trust and cooperation between the Iranians and other Shiite groups — including Hezbollah — when it comes to sensitive international
operations. It is little wonder, then, that the Lebanese organization’s sphere of operations does not extend much beyond the Levant.