The Iran-Hezbollah Schism


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.
–Sameer Lalwani


7 comments on “The Iran-Hezbollah Schism

  1. Mr.Murder says:

    Comparing the Saudis to Syria is a major mistake on anyone’s part.
    Baker has more pull within Saudi Arabia, for vested reasons.
    That any such conversation comes from you indicates his old guard is trying to push back on the Bush policy. That can be considered good, the Sr. success vs. the Jr. failures, but the background of comparison alone makes this a misnomer policy.
    Syria has massive war refugee problems.
    If anything, this shows a new more independent Shi’ite sector arising from the former relegated role of subordinate.
    Al Sadr is taking money and political capital gained from the cease fire restraint in his own land and developing ties elsewhere. This is one way to so, IMO.
    You cannot contain the infrastructure of political dialog any more. The web is too big for it. Failure to address the lesion and cancer from the initial terror networks, and the fact new ones can emerge within the void of a wake caused by moving the asymmetrical assets they deploy, make the game new.
    Sorry to bring that up within the framework of government talk. Hezbollah and Hamas are legitimate political entities. The same kind of background and social networks exist over both to the extent they draw comparison with non state actors.
    There’s a lot more under the table at play here.
    Kissinger style triangulation, concede to the above parties to isolate Gaza. Cool down northern topics as the Egypt tensions flare.
    In return, Lebanon develops stronger ties with places outside of Iran(China’s new client state) and instead develops along the lines of networks from perhaps Putin(one of the more bold strategic actors). He’s already tried at times to sweeten items up with Israel, this may secure him continued banking advance in other market sectors.
    Plus this would help establish leverage against other interests of the west, and continue the effort of the NaftaSib plans of northern pipelines along the lines of the ACT/Edmonds trail.
    Either get your foot in the door with Lebanon and the trans Iraqi/Arabian pipelines, or become a barrier so the northern flows to the Caspain occur favorably, or both.
    Develop assets for both, use them to game market spikes and political seasons in each region on a time work that agrees with other venture plans.
    Israel’s move at Syria was quite premature, and it was a means to save face for losing Lebanon, in terms of collateral perception.
    Too much doesn’t match for all of it to work. Plausible denialbility. It does show the eastern money that gains Iran entry is working its way into Syria to greater degrees. We maintain a tenuous position there, if anyone will develop client state proliferation it should be us.
    It’s quite possible that Iran planned instead to develop a package of proliferation capabilities with allies in the region as a hedge against regional consensus against their sovereignty. The first step would be the development of conventional and civilian use programs that could parallel future development of the infrastructure needed to maintain industry in a way you could game oversight and hop scotch programs from one country to another while the international paper trail plays catch up.
    Thus, Chinese venture backing aids their friend, is hit in advance of operational capacity for several politically symbolic reasons.
    One, to let them know you know, eyes are watching.
    Two, as means of cover for other policy mistakes and military setbacks with Lebanon.
    Three, for appropriations funding in the US Congress and perhaps at several EU type functions. look for any matching votes across said timeline, most certainly here.
    Israel would want the IAEA there after the fact, not before. They want to play the cards, we endorsed it as Hersh alludes. Yet Israel refuses the IAEA and oversight of its own programs…
    Eventually Israel would have to own up its own proliferation re:North Korea, endorsed by Putin’s interests as triangulation vs.China by enabling a nuclear neighbor.
    The they’d have to deal with the fallout of political burnback. Better to bomb and blame instead, much easier to shape the outcome in the short term in so doing.
    Then the cables go out, because someone knows they’re being listened to. They could deduct as much, and insulate interior turmoil by vilifying the west, shaping messages and perception anew, and establishing new infrastructure with Chinese venture capital underlying the cost and technology.
    The burnback of that came from a regional actor once again made part of the Iraq policy. Ahmed Chalabi was being made part of the interior/service ministry of Iraq, an effort to gain political legitimacy on a faster timetable , one accrued to western drawback.
    He was there at his new post for a brief while, just about the time appropriations from here dry up due to oversight snags and Bush’s own veto threats, he returns to playing the security card against us with Iraq’s neighbor to assert his support from the Shi’ite majority in both lands.
    Suddenly, cables are going out, with no detectable ships near. Inside job, damage control. They couldn’t continue to be gamed, we squandered a major asset once again, and the Chalabi leaks helped Iran to piece together much of the picture, and a few tips helped connect the mystery.
    After the Plame outing, on the heels of the Edmonds resignation, our technology capacity to continue a hold on their signals gets outed, and they decide to play it up as our move as a way of reversing the spin.
    Crafty items in play, all of which open holes in our ability to keep the narrative secure. Now the stovepipes can work through these short cuts. Known unknowns, and all that.


  2. Carroll says:

    I really don’t see the flipping and picking apart thingy working in the ME any longer.
    Of course I am not an expert in ME matters but what Arab country would trust any US “flip” deal any longer?
    Seems to me thinking this would work assumes nothing has changed in US power and the Arabs are stupid.


  3. arthurdecco says:

    Anyone who has read the English translations of Nasrallah’s speeches could never in a million years consider Hezbollah a supplicant or satellite of Iran. He has made it very clear over the years and in many speeches that Hezbollah is a LEBANESE entity, exclusively devoted to the protection and promotion of LEBANESE interests. That is why he enjoys 80% + approval ratings among ALL the Lebanese factions, (with the exception of those clandestinely aligned with Israel’s interests, of course). It’s because he has PROVEN these policy statements to be true with every action he has taken as Hezbollah’s leader.
    I have to question Sameer Lalwani’s motivation for producing this article at this time with the obvious bias contained within it, in light of the “Western”, (in this case, read Israeli), propaganda he has sprinkled throughout it. Here’s a subtle gem: “…given Hezbollah independence (or at least the desired appearance of it)”.
    I wonder if the writer would care to enlighten us with the FACTS behind the claim that Hezbollah spokesmen’s oft-stated claims of independence are only “the desired appearance of it”? Or is this just more distortion designed to derail us from making informed judgments and, in addition, to pathologize the “enemy”, who in this case, this minute, is Hezbollah?
    (asked despairingly, rhetorically, does not require a response)
    Does anyone tell us the unmitigated truth anymore? …Did they ever?


  4. Ajaz Haque says:

    As long as US gives unqualified (and times unjust) support to Israel as in Lebanon war which even the Israelis now admit was a failure, groups like Hezbollah and Hamas will gain momentum and find supporters.
    The key is not to divide and conquer, the key is a just settlement of Israeli/Palestinian conflict, with two states of equal status. Arabs accepted Israel as a reality long ago. The 1967 war quite a lesson for them. They no longer ask for the original territory of 1948, but the territory Israel conquered in 1967.
    Bill Clinton was very close to achieving peace, but by giving unqualified support to Israel & Sharon and fanning the flames of war, George Bush is indirectly responsible for the creation of Hamas and strengthening Hizbollah. Had he started peace process in his first year of office, he might be leaving an amzing legacy today.
    Many in the Muslim world believe that US policy of unqualified support to Israel is helping lunatics like OBL and similar other extremists recruit angry youth.


  5. Dan Kervick says:

    I think there is an extraordinary amount of wishful thinking in this post. My guess is that if Israel attacks Iran, we’re all fucked. It doesn’t matter what degree of independence from Iran Hizbollah has or claims to have. The idea that we are going to “pick apart” Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and Iran when Israel is bombing a Muslim country and that Muslim country is fighting back against both Israel and the US just seems incredibly far-fetched to me.
    This is the kind of fantastic thinking we hear from neoconservatives, who keep dreaming of some sort of Royal Road for Israel to achieve peace, stability and regional acceptance, a road that runs through various imaginary alliances on behalf of common interests, and skirts the need to solve their Palestinian problem first in a manner consistent with UN resolutions. It’s not happening.
    The idea that bombing Iran and seeing what Hizbollah does is an interesting way of “testing” Hizbollah’s degree of independence from Iran is lunacy. I sincerely hope Israeli and US planners aren’t thinking along these lines, because that would lead them into a truly mad and dangerous level of overconfidence.


  6. JohnH says:

    This seems to be a totally reasonable analysis. Only in group thinking beltway circles would Hezbollah ever be considered Iran’s “cat’s paw,” just like Israel is not Bush’s surrogate.
    Nonetheless the US-Israeli relationship has some constraints. Israel cannot talk to Syria without US approval. And the US may feel obligated to come to Israel’s defense in the event of an existential threat. The same may be true of the Hezbollah/Iranian relationship. Hezbollah may have extended Iran some privileges in return for the weapons it received. And it may be in Hezbollah’s self-interest to attack Israel if Israel threatens the existence of its major supporter.


  7. p.lukasiak says:

    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.
    first off, what you describe as a “schism” isn’t one. The fact that two allies respect each others autonomy does not represent a “schism”.
    secondly, the mindset behind “divide and conquer” is precisely the kind of thinking that created our current mess in the Middle East. We shouldn’t be thinking in terms of “conquering” anyone; rather we should be thinking of ways to advance mutual interests.


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