By: James Blake
Among Western governments consensus is growing that Hezbollah, acting under Iranian instruction, perpetrated last week’s suicide bombing against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.
The attack signifies a significant ideological and operational shift for Hezbollah, which had cultivated an image as an independent Lebanese actor. For Iran, Hezbollah’s operational support boosts its asymmetric capability and extends its strategic reach. International policy aimed at disrupting Iran’s nuclear program should aim to reverse Hezbollah’s operational shift.
Hezbollah was formed in 1983, a product of Ayatollah Khomeini‘s aim to spread the Iranian Revolution. Iran provided financial, military and educational support which nurtured the group’s growth. Hezbollah served as a proxy by which Iran’s Revolutionary Guards could further its interest abroad, particularly in influencing the Arab-Israel peace process. The Shia militia was involved in large, international terrorist attacks, including the bombings against US and French troops in 1983, the hijacking of Trans World Airlines flight 847 to Beirut in 1985, and the suicidebombing against a Jewish community in Argentina.
Hezbollah’s ideology and relationship with Iran quickly evolved. From 1992, it has participated in Lebanese elections, with Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, gaining executive authority for political decisions. Simultaneously, the group diversified its military and financial network, which now has extended across the world. Hezbollah and Iran became junior and senior partners; somewhat comparable to the United Kingdom and the United States. Through this, Iran gains strategic influence over the the Arab-Israeli conflict, while Hezbollah receives money, weapons and training.
I can personally attest to Hezbollah’s evolution, as I was there conducting research on the group in mid-2008. I conducted interviews with the party’s politicians, its strategists, its fighters, its supporters and its opponents. All confirmed that Hezbollah had become a rational and independent actor. The overriding consensus was that Hezbollah’s response to a US or Israeli military strike against Iran would depend on what was in its best interests.
In 2009, Hezbollah released a new manifesto, which downplayed its Islamist past. Its stated objectives were to build national political diversity – stretching across Lebanon’s confessional societies – and to maintain is weapons to deter Israeli intervention. Broadly, Hezbollah and Iran’s interests dovetailed, but on occasions, each would now act according to their own interests. International terrorist attacks stopped; the proxy had become the partner.
So what explains last week’s suicide attack?
Current geopolitical conditions. Hezbollah’s two main supporters – Syria and Iran - are under threat. President Bashar Al-Assad’s long-term position is tenuous, as the opposition extends its control and Assad’s inner circle begins to defect. Hezbollah relies on Syria as a transit point for most of its weapons, which includes those it acquires from Iran, Russia and elsewhere. A worst-case scenario and outcome for Hezbollah is that a Western-leaning government replaces Assad’s government. This would leave it strategically encircled, threaten to limit its weapon supply and its ability to deter Israel. Meanwhile, international sanctions have weakened Iran’s financial strength.
Iran’s nuclear program has therefore become of critical importance to Hezbollah. A nuclear weapons capability would guarantee Iran’s regional power and extend an umbrella of support to Hezbollah.
Based on these realities, Hezbollah’s leadership appears to have reversed its ideological position and sanctioned support for Iran’s covert terrorism campaign. The Iranian government blames Israeli intelligence for the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, along with other sabotage efforts. The Bulgarian suicide attack was designed to deter Israel, along with its allies, from conducting further covert operations in Iran.
The lethality and target selection of Hezbollah and Iran’s campaign conceivable could escalate further. Recent terrorist plots foiled in Kenya, Cyprus and Turkey – all linked back to Iran and Hezbollah – suggest intent for more indiscriminate and larger attacks. US regional and international interests could conceivably be at risk. Hezbollah militants – many of whom have undergone advanced training in Iran – operate as sleeper cells and live among the wider Shia diaspora.
Hezbollah’s operational support to Iran adds a new dilemma to the current Middle Eastern instability. Events and outcomes in Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the wider Arab-Israeli peace process are intrinsically linked. The combination of covert operations targeting Iran’s nuclear program along with international sanctions will likely cause further asymmetric attacks.
To limit Hezbollah’s operational support to Iran, diplomatic efforts in Syria should focus on establishing a unity government in Syria, rather than regime change. This would help ease Hezbollah’s concern over its own future security and focus its attention back to Lebanon.
James Blake advises multinational companies, institutions and governments on issues of geopolitics and international security. For five years he developed intelligence-led products to help clients protect their assets and mitigate risks, while building an expertise in both tactical and strategic intelligence analysis. More recently he has written about future geopolitical and security issues.
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