Lebanon: The Shiite Dimension

By Nicholas Blanford

Lebanon’s main Islamist party has undergone one of the most profound transformations across the Muslim world over the past three decades. Once associated with suicide bombings and hostage taking, the party has steadily evolved from an underground movement in 1982 to the leading influence inside the Lebanese government by 2012.

Hezbollah, or the Party of God, still has two faces, however. It was powerful enough at home to force the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2011 simply by pulling out of Lebanon’s coalition government. But Hezbollah also remained the most powerful regional militia, using its vast arsenal to fight Israel for thirty-four days in 2006. The conflict was Israel’s longest Middle East war. Across the region, Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah also regularly tops popularity polls. The movement, created under Iran’s auspices and aid after Israel’s 1982 invasion, reflects the dynamic Shiite dimension of Islamist politics in the Arab world.

Hezbollah was inspired by the teachings of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It subscribes to a doctrine known as the velayat-e faqih—or, in Arabic, the wali al-faqih—Khomeini’s theory of Islamic governance, which bestows guardianship of government to a senior religious scholar. Iran remains Hezbollah’s chief ideological, financial, and military supporter. Syria is also a close ally.

Hezbollah’s core ideological goals are resisting Israel, establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon, and offering obedience to Iran’s supreme leader. But Hezbollah has developed a keen sense of realpolitik that has helped shape its political agenda and allowed it to sidestep challenges to its armed status. It long ago accepted, for example, that an Islamic state is not appropriate for Lebanon, and it has considered alternative systems of government.

Hezbollah has deepened its involvement in Lebanese politics over the years, but it does so with some hesitation and usually only in response to changed situations or threats to its core interests. Ideally, the party would prefer to avoid the pitfalls of Lebanon’s political quagmire, believing that it complicates the more pressing goal of confronting Israel.

“We have never sought to be in government ministries,” Nasrallah said after the collapse of the Saad Hariri government in 2011. “All we have been saying to successive governments—and we still say it today—is the following: Brothers, we are a resistance movement.… We do not seek to run the government. Our hearts and minds are elsewhere. When people go to sleep, we conduct [military] training and prepare ourselves.”

Hezbollah has never been stronger militarily and politically, but the challenges facing the movement have also never been greater. They range from rising domestic discontent over Hezbollah’s refusal to abandon its weapons to the Syrian uprising, which threatens to unseat the regime of President Bashar al Assad and alter the geostrategic balance in the Middle East.

Over three decades, its deepening political engagement has also transformed Hezbollah into the main representative of Lebanon’s Shiites, the largest of the country’s seventeen recognized sects. In turn, the movement now needs continued support of the community to ensure its own survival. Yet the interests of its constituents do not always correspond to the agenda of Iran’s leaders, to whom Hezbollah is ideologically beholden. Balancing these rival obligations is a paradox that Hezbollah is finding ever more difficult to reconcile.

The Beginning

Hezbollah emerged in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, but its genesis lay in the Shiite religious seminaries of Najaf in southern Iraq. In the 1960s and 1970s, Lebanese clerical students were influenced by leading Shiite ideologues such as Mohammed Baqir al Sadr and Ruhollah Khomeini. Sadr, a founder of the Party of the Islamic Call, or Hizb al Dawa al Islamiyya, promoted Islamic values as a counterweight to secularism and the leftist ideologies then attracting the Arab young. Khomeini achieved prominence with his doctrine of velayat-e faqih.

After Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s crackdown on the Shiite clerical establishment in the late 1970s, Lebanese students and teachers were forced to return home. Some then began to preach the ideas of Khomeini and Sadr to a domestic audience.

By the end of the 1970s, three developments helped create fertile ground for the eventual emergence of Hezbollah. One factor was the creation of Amal, the first strong Shiite movement. Amal’s founder was Sayyed Musa Sadr, a charismatic Iranian-born cleric who tapped into rising anger among Shiites over their repression by other Lebanese sects, particularly Christians and Sunni Muslims. But in 1978, Sadr vanished during a trip to Libya. After his disappearance, Amal drifted in a more secular direction under new leadership, to the dismay of the movement’s Islamists.

The second event was Israel’s first invasion of Lebanon in 1978 in a bid to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Israel installed a security cordon along the border inside Lebanon, which was controlled by an Israeli-backed militia. It was the first experience for many southern Lebanese in living under occupation.

The third crucial event was the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the first modern theocracy replaced the dynastic rule that had prevailed in Iran for more than 2,500 years. The revolution had an electrifying effect on Lebanese Shiites in general and on the clerical followers of Khomeini in particular. Iranian leaders and Lebanese clerics held lengthy discussions about importing the revolution to Lebanon and building an armed anti-Israel movement. Among the Lebanese clerics were Sheikh Sobhi Tufayli, who later became Hezbollah’s first secretary-general, and Sayyed Abbas Musawi, a preacher from the Bekaa Valley village of Nabi Sheet.

The idea was delayed by an Iranian power struggle and the beginning of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in 1980. But then Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 to drive the PLO out of Lebanon.

Iran immediately offered assistance, dispatching 5,000 Revolutionary Guards to Syria for deployment in Lebanon. But the main fighting soon ended, and most of the Iranians returned home. Aided by Syria, a smaller contingent of Iranians moved into the northern Bekaa Valley to begin mobilizing and recruiting Shiites into a new anti-Israel force that was the basis of what became Hezbollah.

By 1983, the nascent Hezbollah’s influence was seeping from the Bekaa Valley into Beirut’s Shiite suburbs and from there further south toward the front line of the Israeli occupation. By 1985, Israel, exhausted by the intensifying resistance campaign, withdrew to a security belt along the Lebanon-Israel border. Hezbollah—along with Amal and secular local resistance groups, which played smaller roles—had more success in pressuring Israel in two years than had the PLO in a decade. Hezbollah won additional support by providing social welfare services to lower-class Shiites.

In 1985, Hezbollah formally declared its existence in its “Open Letter,” a manifesto outlining its identity and agenda. The goals included driving Israeli forces from south Lebanon as a precursor to the destruction of the Jewish state and the liberation of Jerusalem. Hezbollah confirmed that it abided by the orders of “a single wise and just command” represented by Ayatollah Khomeini, the “rightly guided imam.”

Hezbollah also rejected Lebanon’s sectarian political system and instead advocated creation of an Islamic state. At the same time, the party was careful to emphasize that it did not wish to impose Islam as a religion on anyone and that other Lebanese should be free to pick their preferred system of governance.

In formally declaring its existence and goals, Hezbollah emerged from the shadows and demonstrated that it was not a fleeting aberration of the civil war but a force determined to endure.

First Phase: Underground

Hezbollah’s evolution falls into four distinct phases. The first was from 1982 to 1990 and coincided with the chaotic 1975–90 civil war, during which the Lebanese state had little control. Lebanon was instead carved into competing fiefdoms dominated by militias and occupying armies. These were Hezbollah’s wild days, when it could do as it pleased under Iran’s guidance and Syria’s watchful eye.

The movement became synonymous with extremist attacks, including two on U.S. embassies in 1983 and 1984. Its deadliest attacks were the simultaneous truck bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and the nearby French Paratroop headquarters, which killed 241 American servicemen and sixty-eight French soldiers. From 1984, more than 100 foreigners in Lebanon were kidnapped. Hezbollah denied responsibility, although some of its members were later linked with the attacks.

After 1986, Hezbollah dominated the resistance against Israel’s occupation in south Lebanon. But the party’s growing influence in the south also brought it into conflict with the rival Amal movement. In 1988, the two factions fought the first in a series of bloody internecine battles that over the next two years resulted in thousands of dead and generated an animosity that lingered a quarter-century later.

Second Phase: Running for Parliament

The second phase was from 1991 to 2000, following the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990. The restoration of state control sparked a debate within Hezbollah over its future course of action. Hardliners, represented by Sheikh Tufayli, argued that Hezbollah should not compromise its ideological agenda regardless of the nation’s changed circumstances. Others countered that Hez-bollah had to adapt to the new situation to protect its “resistance priority”—the right to confront Israel’s continued occupation of the south.

The debate played out over whether Hezbollah should run in the 1992 parliamentary election, the first in twenty years. Joining parliament would strengthen Hezbollah’s standing in Lebanon, but it would also flout its 1985 manifesto that rejected a sectarian political system. Pragmatists won after receiving the blessing of Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran’s supreme leader, to participate in the elections. Hezbollah won eight parliamentary seats.

Hezbollah also went through a leadership change. A few months before the 1992 election, Hezbollah secretary-general Sayyed Abbas Musawi was assassinated in an Israeli helicopter ambush. He was replaced by his protégé, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, a thirty-two-year-old cleric.

Under Nasrallah, Hezbollah reorganized, adding new bodies to handle its military, political, and social work. It expanded its social welfare activities nationwide to sustain its popular support within the Shiite community. It also launched a television station, Al-Manar, as the flagship of its propaganda arm, and opened a media relations office. Hezbollah even began a dialogue with other factions and religious representatives, including Christians.

Hezbollah’s newfound pragmatism did not represent an ideological softening or a decision to exchange Islamic militancy for a share of Lebanon’s political space. Hezbollah was instead adapting to postwar circumstances to safeguard the resistance. Shortly after the 1992 election, Nasrallah explained, “Our participation in the elections and entry into [parliament] do not alter the fact that we are a resistance party.”

Hezbollah’s resistance efforts actually intensified after 1992. Its hit-and-run guerrilla tactics claimed ever-higher Israeli casualties. In 1993 and 1996, Israel responded with air and artillery blitzes against Lebanon in failed attempts to dent Hezbollah’s campaign.

The late 1990s were Hezbollah’s “golden years.” Hezbollah’s military exploits won it admirers across the Arab and Islamic worlds and earned the respect of all Lebanese, even those inclined to view the Shiite party with suspicion. Under growing pressure from Hezbollah, Israel finally ended its occupation in May 2000, the first time that the Jewish state had ceded occupied territory through force of Arab arms.

Third Phase: Confrontation

The third phase was from 2000 to 2005. With Israel’s withdrawal, Hezbollah’s reputation had never been higher. But its victory was Pyrrhic. A growing number of Lebanese began questioning why Hezbollah needed to keep arms. Hezbollah countered by citing minor territorial disputes and the number of Lebanese still detained in Israeli prisons. It claimed its weapons were a vital part of Lebanon’s defense. Hezbollah had to make sure that the Israelis did not come back. Many Lebanese accused Hezbollah of serving an Iranian—rather than Lebanese—agenda. But Hezbollah still enjoyed the political cover afforded by Syria, which continued to endorse the party’s armed status.

In February 2005, Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated in a truck bomb explosion. Many Lebanese blamed Damascus, and roughly one-quarter of the country’s population took to the streets in protest. Three months later, Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon, ending three decades of military occupation.

The sudden loss of Syrian cover compelled Hezbollah to take another step deeper into Lebanese politics to defend its “resistance priority.” It agreed to an alliance with its longtime Amal rival and with the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party led by former General Michel Aoun.

After the 2005 parliamentary election, Hezbollah joined the government for the first time. Yet its participation did not defuse the core issue. Over the following months, Lebanese politics grew increasingly rancorous over Hezbollah’s arms. It was the single most divisive national issue.

Fourth Phase: War and Rebuilding

The fourth phase ran from 2006 to 2012 and included Hezbollah’s biggest military gamble. On July 12, 2006, its militia abducted two Israeli soldiers along the border. The audacious act triggered a devastating monthlong war with Israel. Hezbollah fought the Israeli army to a standstill in south Lebanon and declared a “divine victory”—but at a high cost.

More than 1,100 Lebanese died in the war, which also caused billions of dollars of damage. In the face of intense domestic criticism, Hezbollah walked out of the Lebanese cabinet in November 2006. A month later, Hezbollah tried to force the government to resign by organizing a mass protest in central Beirut. The government stood its ground, but political paralysis gripped Lebanon.

Tensions between Hezbollah and the central government continued. In 2008, the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora—son of the slain leader—announced it intended to shut down Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network. Hezbollah reacted by staging a brief takeover of west Beirut, triggering a week of clashes that left more than 100 people dead and brought the country to the edge of civil war. The crisis ended with the formation of a new government and the long-delayed election of a president, Michel Suleiman.

In 2009, Lebanon faced a new crisis when a United Nations investigation obtained evidence implicating Hezbollah in the assassination of Rafik Hariri four years earlier. Hezbollah denied the allegations and claimed that the Dutch-based tribunal investigating the case was serving the political interests of the United States and Israel.

The Hariri government refused to abandon its support for the tribunal. In January 2011, as the tribunal was preparing to issue its first set of indictments, Hezbollah and its political allies forced a vote of no confidence in the government. The new government was composed of Hezbollah and its allies; it was led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a billionaire businessman and political moderate.

By 2012, Hezbollah was the dominant political and military force in Lebanon. Yet as it became more deeply embroiled in rough-and-tumble Lebanese politics, it was also constrained and encumbered by the daily challenges of governing.

Key Positions

Hezbollah has never abandoned the core ideological pillars listed in its manifesto in 1985: the confrontation against Israel, the observance of the wilayet al-faqih leadership doctrine, and the preference to live in an Islamic state.

But the party has adjusted its public discourse and operational behavior over the years to suit the unfolding political and social environment in Lebanon. This survival strategy was evident in the 2009 “Political Document,” a long-awaited update to the original “Open Letter.” Much of the fiery rhetoric of the earlier manifesto was replaced with nuanced deliberations on a future Lebanese state and the most suitable form of democracy.

Islam and Democracy

In the 1985 “Open Letter,” Hezbollah stated, “We do not wish to impose Islam on anybody and we hate to see others impose on us their convictions and their systems. We do not want Islam to rule in Lebanon by force.… But we stress that we are convinced of Islam as a faith, system, thought, and rule, and we urge all to recognize it and resort to its law.”

Nearly thirty years later, Hezbollah still wants an Islamic state. Indeed, because Hezbollah is a jihadist Islamist organization, it would be anathema for Hezbollah to renounce the idea of living in a state run under Islamic Sharia law. But its leadership long ago accepted that Lebanon’s multisectarian and pluralistic environment is not suited to the establishment of an Islamic state. Instead, Hezbollah has deliberated over acceptable alternatives.

In the 2009 “Political Document,” Hezbollah repeated its long-standing rejection of Lebanon’s sectarian political system, which it considered “a strong constraint to the achievement of true democracy under which an elected majority may govern and an elected minority may oppose.” Until political sectarianism is abolished, Hezbollah argued that “consensual democracy will remain the fundamental basis of governance in Lebanon.”

Hezbollah explained:
The consensual democracy constitutes an appropriate political formula to guarantee true partnership and contributes in opening the doors for everyone to enter the phase of building the reassuring state that makes all its citizens feel that it is founded for their sake.

Women and Personal Freedoms

Hezbollah has a more open attitude toward women’s role in society than do many other Islamist organizations. Women play important roles within Hez-bollah’s social-welfare, media, and administrative departments. In the 2009 “Political Document,” Hezbollah said that it sought a state “that works to consolidate the role of women at all levels in the framework of benefiting from their characteristics [and] influence while respecting their status.”

Hezbollah does not aggressively interfere in the lifestyles of its Shiite constituents. Certain taboos are observed—for example, Hezbollah bans the sale of alcohol and stamps out drug use in areas under its control—but Hezbollah is generally uninterested in antagonizing its supporters by imposing a strict moral regimen.

Other Religions

Hezbollah recognizes that Lebanon has a diverse religious landscape and has open channels of dialogue with all other sects. Hezbollah has always championed unity between the Shiite and Sunni sects on grounds that resistance against Israel takes precedence over doctrinal differences. Hezbollah counts Sunni Islamists among its allies, despite sporadic Shiite-Sunni tensions. Hezbollah opened a dialogue with the Maronite church for the first time in 1992, and a specially appointed party representantive regularly meets with the religious leaders of various Christian denominations.

The United States and the West

In the 1985 “Open Letter,” Hezbollah described the United States as the “first root of vice” and “the reason for all our catastrophes and the source of all malice.” That view has not fundamentally changed. The 2009 “Political Document” railed against U.S. global hegemony, accusing it of being the “origin of every aspect of terrorism” and, under the administration of President George W. Bush, “a danger that threatens the whole world in every level and field.”

The document stated:
The unlimited U.S. support for Israel and its cover for the Israeli occupation of Arab lands in addition to the American domination of international institutions and dualism in issuing and implementing international resolutions, the policy of interfering in other states’ affairs, militarizing the world and adopting the principle of circulating wars in international conflicts, evoking disorder and turbulence all over the world put the American administration in a position hostile to our nation and peoples and hold it essentially responsible of causing chaos in the international political system.

In the 1980s, Hezbollah listed France, Israel, and the United States as its main enemies. By 2012, however, Hezbollah officials often met with European representatives, and the party’s attitude toward Europe was more reproachful than hostile. European policies, Hezbollah said, “fluctuate between incapability and inefficiency on one hand and unjustified subjugation to U.S. policies on the other.”


In the 1985 “Open Letter,” Hezbollah explicitly said that Israel “is a usurping enemy that must be fought until the usurped right [i.e., Palestine] is returned to its owners.… Our struggle with usurping Israel emanates from an ideological and historical awareness that this Zionist entity is aggressive in its origins and structure and is built on usurped land and at the expense of the rights of a Muslim people. Therefore, our confrontation of this entity must end with its obliteration from existence.”

In the 2009 “Political Document,” Hezbollah cited its hostility toward Israel to justify keeping its arms and a military wing:

Israel represents an eternal threat to Lebanon—the state and the entity—and a real danger to the country regarding its historical ambitions in its land and water.

The role of the Resistance is a national necessity as long as Israeli threats and ambitions to seize our lands and waters continue, in the absence of the capable strong state and the strategic imbalance between the state and the enemy.

Chief Allies

Iran is Hezbollah’s main financial, military, and logistical supplier, and Iran’s supreme leader is the party’s ultimate source of authority. Under the late President Hafez al Assad, Syria was Hezbollah’s protector and supervisor. Since Assad’s son Bashar al Assad took over in 2000, Syria has evolved into an even closer strategic ally. Syria is the vital geostrategic linchpin connecting Iran to Hezbollah, providing strategic depth and a conduit for the transfer of arms.

The Palestinian Hamas movement and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have been allies of Hezbollah since the early 1990s. Both groups have benefited from Iranian financial and material patronage. But Hamas, a Sunni movement, does not share the Shiite ideology of Iran and Hezbollah, making Hamas and Hezbollah uncomfortable bedfellows beyond a shared hostility toward Israel.

Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement are secular Lebanese political entities that have been allied with Hezbollah since 2005 and 2006, respectively. Hezbollah also maintains alliances with smaller pro-Syrian factions and individuals, Islamist groups, and Palestinian groups.

The Future

In 2012, Hezbollah was arguably the most formidable nonstate military actor in the world. It was also the most powerful political force and dominant influence in the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

Yet down the road, Hezbollah also faces grave challenges that derive from its dual and sometimes conflicting roles as both Iran’s surrogate and, at the same time, the chief representative of Lebanon’s Shiites. Iran has helped transform Hezbollah into a robust and unique military force that serves as a component of Iranian deterrence. Hezbollah is also, however, answerable to the needs and interests of its domestic constituency. The paradox is increasingly hard to reconcile.

Hezbollah’s public standing has also declined somewhat since the heady days of the 1990s. Hezbollah’s refusal to disarm lies at the heart of Lebanon’s festering political divide. Over the years, Hezbollah has been sucked ever deeper into the political mire. It considered its shift into the treacherous and fractious world of Lebanese politics as an unfortunate necessity to better defend its “resistance priority.”

The Arab Spring presented another set of difficulties for Hezbollah. It supported uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but it was caught off guard by the nationwide Syrian protests. Repeated declarations of support for the Bashar al Assad regime have eroded the party’s popularity, both among Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the Syrian opposition, and in the Arab world, as the regional tensions increase between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia.

More broadly, the Arab uprisings appear to have dulled the appeal of resistance and jihad for many young Arabs, who for now seem more interested in democracy and new social contracts that provide jobs and opportunity.

Hezbollah will remain a powerful political player on the Lebanese scene for the foreseeable future regardless of developments in Syria. But the challenge for Hezbollah of balancing its ideological and logistical obligations to Iran and its political and social duties to Lebanon’s Shiite community is a paradox that will only grow more difficult in the years ahead.

Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut correspondent for The Times of London and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the author of  Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East (2006) and Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle against Israel (2011).

New Articles

For more articles, click here.


The Islamists Are Coming is the first book to survey the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Often lumped together, the more than 50 Islamist parties with millions of followers now constitute a whole new spectrum—separate from either militants or secular parties.  They will shape the new order in the world’s most volatile region more than any other political bloc. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals.

The Islamists Are Coming

Our Partner