The classified military documents obtained by WikiLeaks, which disclose Hezbollah’s role in Iraq under the direct command of the Iranian regime, may not be particularly surprising or even groundbreaking. However, they serve as a reminder of the reality of Hezbollah – all myths aside – as a brigade of the Islamic Revolutionary guard Corps. They also help keep in focus the nature of the strategic threat facing the US in the region: the alliance system led by Iran.
Fans of Hezbollah in the Western media are fond of asserting that the Party of God has become “Lebanonized.” Consequently, and contrary to claims by the US, according to this view the group does not possess “global reach” and has long stopped being involved in attacks against American targets, being focused instead on the narrower issue of Lebanon’s territorial dispute with Israel.
The documents, published by The New York Times, detail, among other things, Iran’s and Hezbollah’s direct operational involvement in training and supplying militias in Iraq. As such, they chronicle yet another chapter in the ongoing, decades-long war by the Iranians against the US in the region – a war in which Hezbollah has been the spearhead.
Specifically, the documents relate how Hezbollah has trained select Iraqi Shia cadres in various combat tactics inside Iran. For instance, one document details how a commander in Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), Azhar al-Dulaymi, was trained in Iran by Hezbollah operatives under the supervision of the Islamic Revolutionary guard Corps’ Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to conduct military-style kidnapping operations with the aim of abducting American soldiers. Although al-Dulaymi was eventually killed by US troops, he succeeded in planning an operation that resulted in the capture and execution of four US soldiers.
This type of Iranian involvement, including the use of Hezbollah operatives in Iraq, has been repeatedly announced by US officials over the last four years, and it has been reported often in the press. For example, in August 2007, The Independent newspaper published an interview with a JAM militiaman in which he openly discussed receiving training in Lebanon at the hands of Hezbollah commanders in anti-tank ambush tactics, the use of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) and sniper operations.
In late February 2008, an Iraqi military intelligence official told the Iraqi daily al-Zaman that the person who had supervised the movement of JAM fighters to Lebanon was none other than Hezbollah’s senior military commander, Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated earlier that month in Damascus, and who used to run external operations in close collaboration with the IRGC-QF. Indeed, the al-Zaman report noted that the training was also coordinated with Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani.
Another veteran Hezbollah military official, Ali Moussa Daqdouq, who was in charge of observing the training of JAM and other so-called “Special Groups” such as the notorious Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH) group, was captured in Iraq in March 2007 along with AAH commanders, the Khaz’ali brothers (who, regrettably, were released in 2008-09 in what is suspected to have been a swap involving British hostages).
According to a July 2007 briefing by Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, the Multinational Forces spokesman at the time, “In May 2006,” Daqdouq “traveled to Tehran with Yussef Hashim, a fellow Lebanese Hezbollah [member] and head of their operations in Iraq. They met with the Commander and Deputy Commander of the Iranian Qods Force Special External Operations,” and Daqdouq “was tasked to organize the Special Groups in ways that mirrored how Hezbollah was organized in Lebanon.” Bergner added, “It shows how Iranian operatives are using Lebanese surrogates to create Hezbollah-like capabilities.”
Indeed, Iran’s preferred formula is to spawn and develop politico-military movements in divided societies where the central government is weak. To date, the only successful such implant has been in Lebanon, where Iran has embedded an organic extension of its structures in the form of Hezbollah.
Observers have tended to mistake the grafting of Hezbollah onto the local Shia community for “Lebanonization.” However, regardless of whether the group is rooted in a local community, it is nevertheless a tool of the Iranian Islamic Republic and one of its military apparatuses. In fact, Hezbollah’s architects always saw their project in Lebanon as a springboard for furthering the reach of the Islamic Revolution, and Hezbollah has indeed been fulfilling that role in Iraq and elsewhere.
This leads to the implosion of another myth, popularized especially in the last decade, and that is the notion of “non-state actors,” which is how Hezbollah is often referred to. However, it’s always been clear that the group and its mission were very much a state enterprise.
For instance, after the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, the US understood that this was an act of war by the Iranian and Syrian regimes. Indeed, when President Ronald Reagan asked the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draw up target lists for retaliation, they included “the Syrian defense ministry and other command targets in Syria” as well as “selected ‘snatches’ of Syrian officers based in Lebanon who had helped carry out the operation.”
It was in that vein that former ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, called in 2008 for using “military force against a training camp to show the Iranians we’re not going to tolerate this.” Yet the US did not pursue that option in 1983, nor has it done so today. That has allowed states such as Iran and Syria to strike at American targets without fear of retaliation. So much so, in fact, that, as detailed in the French Le Figaro on Monday, Syria feels confident enough to host Hezbollah arms warehouses on its own territory.
Instead of making clear the exorbitant price of such actions, we have come to entertain myths about the transformative powers of diplomacy that would ostensibly “incentivize” America’s adversaries to adopt more “constructive” behavior. Similarly, the myth of a “Lebanonized” Hezbollah persists, as does the legend of it being a “non-state actor,” when all evidence shows that it continues to be what it always has been: a division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.