Last week, I heard some pretty fascinating analysis of the Iranian-Hezbollah relationship that, while not earth shattering, is worth sharing.
The idea being floated from a Levant scholar was that — based on interviews with senior Hezbollah officers — the organization considers itself more of a partner rather than a client of Iran with greater freedom of action than the prevailing narrative accords it. The officers claim Hezbollah has never taken an action at Iran’s bequest which they believed to be detrimental to their own or Lebanese interests, suggesting at least a semi-independent Arab army rather than merely an Iranian cat’s paw, and has actually convinced Iran to drop such proposals. (This matches with account of the 2006 war in Lebanon by Anthony Cordesman who found that Hezbollah initiated action on its own and ran its own operations without Iranian direction. And though there’s indications that members of the Quds force may have been present during the war, there’s no evidence that IRGC officers visited Lebanon before the war).
While Iran might try to leverage Hezbollah’s decision making through supplies of arms and money, the senior Hezbollah officers believe they could procure sufficient military hardware from other sources with the relationships they’ve developed, and could sufficiently finance their operations with private donors, particularly since their regional and global profile rose tremendously after the 2006 Lebanon War.
A situation ripe for testing this freedom of action would be if Iran were bombed. With the prospect of a US bombing campaign against Iran diminishing in the wake of the recently declassified sections of NIE, it seems increasingly likely that Israel is seriously considering a strike against Iran, especially given the Seymour Hersh’s penetrating diagnosis of Israel’s September strike on Syria. Irrespective of who carries it out, if either the U.S. or Israel were to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities or other military assets, Hezbollah officers are confident that Iran will immediately retaliate against Israel as well as U.S. bases in Iraq and the Gulf.
However, Hezbollah would not be immediately activated or called upon to respond as Iran’s pawn. They would be able to wait to see the U.S. and/or Israel’s reaction. If either actor widened the theater of their counter-retaliation to Lebanese or Syrian territory (which seems a likely possibility), then Hezbollah would likely respond. But without that direct provocation, Hezbollah would consider whether it wanted to enter such a regional conflagration.
Hezbollah’s self-declaration of restraint may be suspect, but its sense of geopolitical independence is worth evaluating. It suggests a few important takeaways to consider.
First, in the event of an attack on Iran, it plans to immediately attack Israel no matter who attacks them indicating their strategic rationale is to expand the conflict believing it to be in their interest. This should concern Israel when Iran is betting the table that the region rallies to it regardless of Israeli involvement.
Second, conflict expansion to the Levant theater might be avoidable if Hezbollah is denied certain incentives to enter the fray.
Third, Hezbollah must be treated as an authentic Lebanese political actor rather than an agent of Iran. Coming to terms with this might require us to modify our approach to Lebanese “democracy,” Hezbollah’s role in government, the parameters of a political/power-sharing arrangement, and perhaps even our intransigent and sometimes obtuse management of the Hariri trial.
Fourth and as a corollary to the third, given Hezbollah’s independence (or at least the desired appearance of it), the hydra of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas might actually be picked apart. On one hand they cannot be separated in terms of the influence and impact they have on each other and the region at large. But at the same time, a “divide and conquer” strategy (like former Secretary Jim Baker’s “flip Syria” approach) seems feasible and best served by disaggregating them as political actors with distinctive interests.