In 2022, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah will celebrate 30 years as the undisputed leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon—upholding a pattern of Arab leaders who mature, age, and often die while in power. It was on February 16, 1992 that Abbas al-Musawi, the second secretary-general of Hezbollah, was assassinated by the Israel Defense Forces. While in some cases the elimination of terrorist leaders did weaken their organizations, in this case, the result for Israel was distinctly counterproductive. His successor was a talented young man—a cleric by training, who had studied in Najaf and Qom, and formerly served the more moderate Shiite party in Lebanon, Amal, as a delegate representing the Beqaa valley. The choice fell on Hassan Nasrallah largely due to the wish of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and from his perspective he chose well. During Nasrallah’s three decades in power, as an extremely able leader, he greatly increased the influence of Hezbollah and turned it into a major political power, much stronger than the Lebanese state itself. Yet 30 years after he took control of the movement, Lebanon seems to be sinking fast, and many Lebanese—including members of his own community—hold him responsible. What comes next for the most powerful man in one of the Middle East’s weakest countries?
Between Islamic Revolution and the Cedar Tree
Many of Nasrallah’s enemies call him “an Iranian agent,” and indeed, one of his formal titles is that of the Supreme leader’s Representative in Lebanon. For his supporters, he is the sole defender of Lebanon. In fact, as a leader of Hezbollah, he embodies both identities—a true son of the Iranian Islamic revolution and a Lebanese political leader who represents his authentic constituency.
By birth, upbringing, and socialization, Hassan Nasrallah is just as Lebanese as any member of the privileged Maronite or Sunni families who reside in posh neighborhoods like Achrafiya or Gemmayzeh, in another Lebanese universe. He was born and raised in Burj Hammoud, the eastern suburb of Beirut. During the civil war his family moved to the Tyre area in southern Lebanon. Later he moved to Baalbek, the heart of Beqaa valley, to study. Soon, like many of his peers, he joined the Amal movement (also called Harakat al-Mahrumin, “The Movement of the Deprived”), which was deeply influenced by Imam Musa Sadr who fought against corruption and poverty in largely-Shia populated South Lebanon. Later, discouraged by what he described as the Amal leaders’ “lack of religious devotion” and their readiness to accept Israeli-supported Bashir Gemayil as Lebanon’s president, he left Amal and joined the ranks of the newly established Hezbollah—more radical, far more religious, and closely associated with Iran.
“All of my sisters are active members of Hezbollah. But, as for the brothers, they were all in the Amal movement first. Now, all of them, except for Hoseyn, have left it. We have been discussing and exchanging views with each other for some time now. Today, Hezbollah is making good progress and changing for the better. Its goal is to move in the right direction with the necessities of the time and to uphold its Shiite principles,” said Nasrallah in his autobiography, published in Persian in 2006.
According to personal accounts of people who were close to him, Nasrallah is indeed a deeply religious person, a scholar who dreamt of becoming a religious leader. According to his autobiography, his “ideal person” remains Khomeini, founder of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, while the ideal form of authority is velayat e-faqih—a revolutionary variation of the Shia faith, in which the Islamist system of governance requires obedience to the “Interpreter of the Law,” the Supreme Leader. However, in practice, Nasrallah often acts as a realist. Not unlike the leaders of the Soviet Union—who let go of the dream of the global communist revolution—he no longer dreams about establishing an Islamic Republic in Lebanon today or in the future.
“It is not possible with force and resistance. It requires a national referendum. A referendum that wins 51% of the vote is still not the solution. What it needs is a referendum for which 90% of the people vote. Hence, with this assumption, and in view of the status quo, establishing an Islamic Republic system in Lebanon is not possible at the present time” said Nasrallah back in 2006. At the time, Southern Lebanon lay in ruins, devastated after a war with Israel that Nasrallah had triggered. He then concentrated on establishing charitable organizations to win back the loyalty of the people and find his place in mainstream Lebanese politics.
Yet according to Sheikh Subhi Tufayli, the first secretary-general of Hezbollah, it was Nasrallah’s total loyalty to Iran that eventually caused a split inside the organization, transforming it into an operative arm of Iran in Lebanon (unlike Nasrallah, Tufayli rejected the principle of velayat e-faqih as un-Islamic, and viewed Iran’s government as tyrannical). After the explosion in Beirut in August 2020, Tufayli openly accused Nasrallah of being complicit in the disaster. Nasrallah regularly affirms his loyalty to Iran and Ayatollah Khamenei, implying that if Iran will be drawn into war, his organization will not sit idle. This constant tension between his Lebanese identity and his loyalty as well as religious and organizational connections to Iran is perhaps the defining aspect of Nasrallah’s era.
No Longer a Robin Hood
Nasrallah understood well how badly his Shia constituency needed the welfare they were denied by the Lebanese state. Establishing this social service program was also vital to Hezbollah’s rise and success. For poor Lebanese families in the southern villages and city slums, what mattered was not the jihadi agenda but rather the food packages during Ramadan, medical services, and small zero-percent loans. This use of social services gave Nasrallah an image of a Lebanese “Robin Hood,” ready to “take from the rich” in order to “give to the poor.” He skillfully filled the vacuum created by the weak government, while his constituency was ready to overlook the many shady activities in which Hezbollah was involved: money laundering, drug trade, and massive accumulation of weapons for local dominance and a future devastating war with Israel.
However, in 2021, after almost three decades in power, these structures—created by Hezbollah during the years of plenty—are no longer enough. The crisis in Lebanon, multiplied by the spread of coronavirus, is now much wider and deeper than anything Hezbollah could solve. Sanctions on Iran and measures taken by Western powers against illicit funds and drugs smuggling slowed down the money flow from Iran to Lebanon, as well as from Hezbollah’s supporters in Africa and Latin America. More and more Western countries decided to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, halting all activities of related groups and associations.
Thus, neither Hezbollah nor the Iranian oil shipments (another Robin Hood-like act) can resolve the energy crisis or offer an alternative to Western or Arab aid. Hezbollah’s role in support of the Syrian regime in the long and bloody civil war raised doubts about the true necessity of the “resistance weapon.” The man who praised martyrdom and sacrificed his son Hadi and sent hundreds of other people’s sons to their death during armed conflicts with Israel—and the war in Syria—now found out that his men actually wanted to live and thrive, rather than pay the price of his politics. Two out of three pillars of Hezbollah’s appeal—the charity and the ethos of resistance—have now been seriously diminished.
Will Nasrallah Take Lebanon to the Graveyard of the Failed States?
Hezbollah, which once vied with Amal for attention and influence among Lebanese Shia, now holds significant military and political power, a separate financial system, a powerful militia, a network of charities, and political representation in Lebanon’s Parliament. It relies on three important principles: religion, the fight against Israel, and the battle against corruption and poverty. Despite previous setbacks—such as the war with Israel in 2006 or the demonstrations in 2019 when anti-Hezbollah slogans sounded loud and clear—Nasrallah has been able to maintain his power over Hezbollah and Lebanon, essentially ruling a state within a state. In 2008 he effectively occupied Beirut and proved to the then Prime Minister Saad ad-Din al-Hariri who really held the keys to power in Lebanon. He then delayed the formation of the government and the election of a president until he got the desired result. He came to be known as a mighty and skillful political player, perhaps the only player in town.
This proved to be a pyrrhic victory. Today Nasrallah bears overt responsibility for the prospect that his country—once considered the “Switzerland of the Middle East,”—is a step away from the graveyard of failed states. By posing impossible conditions and promoting the interests of Iran over those of Lebanon, he jeopardizes Lebanon’s future. His organization, as it turns out, does not have the capacity to replace the Lebanese state, nor is it willing to evolve into a normative political organization and let go of terror, illicit funding, the drug trade, and its ultimate commitment to fight Israel on Iran’s behalf. The Shia-Lebanese identity of Nasrallah leaves him little room beyond tactical compromises, while his loyalty to Iran’s leadership will prevent serious reforms and true change. Lebanon can hardly be called a sovereign country anymore as the shallow nature of the Lebanese state led Hezbollah to fill the void and expand into every sphere of life in the country. But it now falls to him to reap the bitter results of the chaotic situation that for 30 years served his interests. The real danger is that he might need a new war to change the equation and regain Hezbollah’s status as the “defender of Lebanon.”