Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's state visit to Lebanon this week has created a media circus in the West and stirred new debate over the relationship of the Iranian regime to Hezbollah, Lebanon's dominant Shiite militia and political party. Ahmadinejad's visit "suggests that Hezbollah values its allegiance to Iran over its allegiance to Lebanon," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Wednesday.
Gibbs's analysis is part of an effort by the Obama administration, along with some Arab and Lebanese critics of Hezbollah, to portray the Party of God as primarily an Iranian proxy. While Hezbollah has become more reliant on Iran in recent years, it is a mistake for Western and Arab policymakers to think they can undermine the movement's base of support by casting doubt on its Arab or Lebanese identity. This approach also reflects a misunderstanding of Shiite history in Lebanon and why that community has grown so dependent on Hezbollah.
There is a long tradition of the Lebanese state leaving Shiites to fend for themselves and waiting for religious or charitable groups to fill the vacuum. This happened over decades, long before Hezbollah emerged in the early 1980s. Hezbollah's "state within a state" was possible because successive governments left a void in the Shiite-dominated areas of southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and the southern suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah did what any effective political movement would do: It created a dependency and social service network that guaranteed its dominance.
In the 1960s and '70s, when Shiites were first making the migration from the rural south and Bekaa to Beirut and other cities, the central government left their fate to the clans and feudal landlords who held sway in the agricultural hinterlands. In 1970, when the Palestine Liberation Organization began creating bases in southern Lebanon, the Shiites were on the front line of a conflict between the PLO and Israel. More Shiite families fled their homes in the south and joined relatives who had already settled around Beirut. Around this time, a Shiite cleric named Musa al-Sadr created Amal, the first major Shiite political party, which later turned into a militia.
When Israeli troops first invaded southern Lebanon in 1978 to drive out the PLO and create a "buffer zone" to prevent attacks on northern Israel, Shiites welcomed Israeli soldiers with rice and flowers. But that honeymoon did not last long, and Shiites were soon fighting the Israeli occupation. The Shiites turned out to be more formidable enemies of Israel than the PLO.
Since it was founded in the early 1980s, Hezbollah has received financial, military, and political support from Iran. The Islamic Republic's militant clerics, including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, once hoped that the group would help export their revolution to the Arab world. But Hezbollah later abandoned the cause of creating an Islamic state in multi-confessional Lebanon. This is not to say that Hezbollah became a democratic or liberal movement. After Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000, many Lebanese wanted Hezbollah to disarm and become a strictly political party. The militia's leaders refused, and they have since gone to great lengths to protect their weapons. The group has also shown little willingness to become accountable to the non-Shiite communities in Lebanon.
Without a strong central state that can defend itself and impose its authority throughout the country, Hezbollah remains the most powerful force in Lebanon--and its weapons guarantee that dominance.