As the Islamic Republic faces what many are calling its gravest internal crisis since the Iranian Revolution, the republic’s most successful export, Hezbollah—and the exception to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s otherwise unfulfilled desire to spread the revolution beyond Iran’s borders—seemingly finds itself in a far more uncertain situation than had appeared possible just a month ago.
Indeed, in the space of little more than a week in June Hezbollah was forced to grapple with two unexpected setbacks. While almost all observers agreed that Lebanon’s June 7 elections would be close, conventional wisdom tilted toward a narrow opposition victory.
That was not to be and though Hezbollah did prove its electoral support in Lebanon’s Shia regions was as strong as ever, the Party of God and its allies failed to take the reins of Lebanon’s government from March 14. Moreover, Hezbollah, which for much of the last four years had asserted that the ruling alliance was illegitimate and that March 14 only held a majority because of the short-lived alliance it formed with Hezbollah in the 2005 vote, instead saw the division of seats of the old parliament almost exactly replicated.
Five days later Iran held its presidential elections, and while many had praised the vigorous debate that took place during the campaign, the government’s declaration, hours after the polls closed that Ahmadinejad had won in a landslide, sparked an explosion of civil unrest that has for the last three weeks has dominated headlines around the world.
When Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gave his first major post election speech on June 17, three days of protests had already convulsed Tehran and other Iranian cities, and captured the world’s attention. In that speech Nasrallah advised March 14 to “leave aside the issue of Iranian elections. They should not bother about an issue, which they do not understand…Iran will overcome this ordeal easily, God willing.”
Still, Nasrallah did address, at length, charges made during the election campaign, regarding Hezbollah’s relationship with Iran and Wilayat al-Faqih, or Guardianship of the Jurist, the religious doctrine followed by the Party of God and the Islamic Republic.
Reacting to Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir’s comments, made on the eve of the election, that an opposition victory could imperil Lebanon’s identity, the Hezbollah chief surmised that the patriarch’s comment’s may have been directed toward Iran, “despite the fact that there is nothing called Persian or Persian civilization in Iran today. What exists in Iran is the Islamic civilization.”
The Islamic Republic was founded and led by Arabs, Nasrallah said before turning to the concept of Wilayat al-Faqih, which he called a religious belief and as such protected under Lebanon’s constitution. “Insulting it is an insult to our religious belief,” he continued, “Anyone who wants to hold a religious discussion, we tell him we are ready, but this has nothing to do with the elections, political campaigns, the government, and the deputies.”
While Hezbollah’s critics contend that the doctrine gives religion ultimate authority over governance and thus constitutes a legitimate electoral issue, Nasrallah’s efforts to distinguish Wilayat al-Faqih as religious and unrelated to the trappings of democracy may reflect, in part, the views of Hezbollah’s Lebanese supporters.
It is not necessarily the case that Hezbollah supporters are supporters of Wilayat al-Faqih, said Mona Fayyad, a writer and professor at Lebanese University. “Hezbollah supporters are concerned with ‘Lebanese [affairs] first and foremost. They are nationalistic, pro-Palestinian, pro-Arab people who don’t talk about the Wilayat al Faqih as anything more than a concept. [Whether or not it is part and parcel with Hezbollah] is the last of their concerns, considering the other elements of Hezbollah that they agree with.”
While Wilayat al Faqih may not figure prominently in the concerns of Lebanese Shia, the relationship between the doctrine and democracy, the two pillars of the Islamic republic is at the heart of the current crisis in Iran, said Wajih Kawtharani, the director of the Center for Arab Unity Studies. “The problem in Iran is that there is an upset in the balance of power between these two forces, and so the struggle today is: Are you for the republic, which is represented by Khatami, Rafsanjani and Mousavi, or are you for the Wali al Faqih?”
That struggle is worrisome for Hezbollah, as they are followers of Iran’s supreme leader and are linked to “Wilayat Al Faqih theoretically, practically, through their institutions, and ideologically,” Kawthrani said, adding that support for Iran’s hardliner president, Mohammad Ahmadinejad, stems from his “his stance toward the US,” rather than his advocacy of the Wilayat.
“Hezbollah in the Lebanese context is popular among the Shia community because it plays the local political game: representing the majority of the community,” he said. “Shia see it as the sect’s party and not Iran’s party. Second, Lebanese governments have marginalized the South and Shia rural areas and they have failed to protect it from Israeli aggression. Hezbollah is able to cater to both concerns: security and development.”
While Hezbollah members swear allegiance to Iran’s supreme leaders, it is often noted how the party has adapted itself to the realities of the Lebanese political landscape; long gone are the days when it publicly advocated for the creation on an Islamic republic in Lebanon.
Indeed Rula Jurdi Abisaab, reviewing Shia Hawzas, or seminaries in Beirut, observes, “In a conscious attempt to blend more easily into the secular and Western sectors of society, Beirut’s male seminarians do not adopt a special dress code...Hezbollah’s promotion of a general, undifferentiated image for the jurist was a powerful indication of its need to find, first, a wider nation-based language and, second, to maintain a ‘modern’ posture.”
(p. 24) The Islamic Republic and Hizballah: Distant relations: five centuries of Lebanese-Iranian ties.
That modern posture, and Hezbollah’s success in securing the support of Lebanese Shia,
is why few are willing to wager that the collapse of the Islamic Republic would cause Hezbollah to follow suit.
If the regime changes in Iran, Hezbollah has prepared itself to assimilate within the Lebanese system, which is based on “consociational” division of power, Kawthrani, said. “Hezbollah, after a period of unrest, would become just like any other sectarian society in Lebanon, representing the Shia community.”
Fayyad echoed the point. Noting that some figures in Iran have argued that the country’s expensive support for Hezbollah has come at the expense of the home front, Fayyad said that, nevertheless, Hezbollah is not going away no matter the outcome.
Still, how exactly Hezbollah would operate without military support from Iran is an open question.