Crown Center for Middle East Studies

Becoming Hezbollah: The Party’s Evolution and Changing Roles

A Conversation with Mohammad Ataie

Organized and edited by David Siddhartha Patel

January 27, 2023

Over its forty-year history, the Lebanese party Hezbollah developed sophisticated military and organizational capabilities that have elevated it to be the most influential non-state actor in the Middle East. These capabilities make it the lynchpin of the so-called Axis of Resistance, the network of states and militias in the region that are closely allied with Iran. In this Crown Conversation, Mohammad Ataie—junior research fellow at the Crown Center—discusses shifts in Hezbollah’s popularity and cross-sectarian appeal, and how Hezbollah's conflicts in its formative years with many of its current allies shaped the party that exists today.

Hezbollah today is the most powerful non-state actor in Iran’s network of influence. How did it get to that point of primacy? There were other transnational groups with ties to Iran in the early 1980s—like the Shiraziyyin and the Islamic Daʿwa Party—but it was Hezbollah that became central for Iran over time. Why?

Looking at the formation and rise of Hezbollah in the contexts of the 1978–79 Iranian Revolution and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon helps elucidate why it stands out in Iran’s transnational network of non-state actors. Ideologically, Hezbollah was imbued from its birth with the pan-Islamic and Third-Worldist ideas of the Iranian Revolution. And the June 1982 Israeli invasion shaped Hezbollah as not exclusively a group for Shiʿa but as a trans-sectarian force. If you look at the activists who took part in the establishment of the party, you see Sunni clerics—like Shaykh Saʿid Shʿaban in northern Lebanon and Shaykh Maher Hamoud in the south—as well as leftist activists associated with Palestinian Fatah. Although Hezbollah’s pan-Islamic appeal has dwindled over time and it is now overwhelmingly associated with the Shiʿa, it still carries noticeable trans-sectarian popularity in Lebanon and the Muslim world. This is evident in its pan-Islamic rhetoric, solidarity with Palestine, its resistance against the settler-colonial state of Israel, and the fact that some Sunni clerics and movements in Lebanon—such as Shaykh Mahir Hamoud in Sidon or the Islamic Unification Movement in Tripoli—continue to stand with Hezbollah and back the party’s resistance politically and ideologically.

Hezbollah’s resistance and example in liberating land through armed struggle, as well as the global popularity of the Palestinian cause (which Hezbollah is widely seen to unconditionally support), offer it an important pan-Islamic and anti-imperial advantage which no other pro-Iran non-state actor enjoys. Hezbollah was a latecomer to the Lebanese Civil War (1975­­–1990), and, of course, its formation led to an intra-sectarian conflict with the established Shiʿi entities, Amal and the Supreme Islamic Shiʿa Council. But Hezbollah’s resistance against occupation gave it a trans-sectarian edge vis-à-vis its adversaries. The Israeli army’s retreat from Beirut and most of Lebanon’s territory to southern Lebanon in 1985, its further withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, and then Israel’s performance in the July 2006 war (from which Hezbollah emerged both militarily and politically stronger) have reinforced Hezbollah’s image as the only militant organization to have forced Israel to surrender occupied territories. The charisma of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and the party’s social welfare services, ideological flexibility, pragmatism, discipline, and success in combining and deploying conventional capabilities and non-state-actor tactics have all been important in Hezbollah’s ascent. But what primarily explains Hezbollah’s elevation is the symbolic capital it has gained through its resistance example and solidarity with Palestine, which has given the party respect beyond its Shiʿa constituency.

The Daʿwa Party and the Shiraziyyin Movement lacked similar symbolic capital to use for building influence in their national context and in the region. They were established in Iraq around the mid-20th century and expanded beyond Iraq (primarily in competition with other Iraqi leftist and Islamist factions) in pursuit of subverting the Iraqi Baʿth regime and, for the Shiraziyyin, also the ruling families in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman. In other words, the struggle against Israel was not central to the Daʿwa Party and the Shiraziyyin Movement. By contrast, Hezbollah was created as a resistance movement, which has secured the party prestige and trans-sectarian support in both Lebanon and the region.

Hezbollah today appears closely allied with Iran, Syria, and the Lebanese Shiʿi movement Amal. How has Hezbollah’s relations with those actors changed over time, and does that history affect its behavior today?

Hezbollah’s current outlook and approach to many national and regional developments are deeply shaped by the tensions and conflicts that it had in its formative years (the 1980s) with Syria, Amal, and political factions in Iran. This period offers insight into Hezbollah’s current ties with Syria, its close alliance with Amal, and why Hezbollah strictly follows the Iranian supreme leader’s position regarding divisive matters inside Iran.

Hafez al-Assad, the late president of Syria, was initially distrustful of Hezbollah and feared it would strengthen the Islamist opposition in Syria and back his archfoe Yasser Arafat. Assad was also wary of an Iranian influence in Lebanon, which he saw as Syria’s backyard. Throughout the 1980s, differences and disagreements between Damascus and Tehran put Hezbollah on a collision course with Syria and led to a massacre of 28 Hezbollah members by the Syrian army in 1987. At the same time, there was also a rivalry and conflict between Hezbollah and Amal—which became known as the War of Brothers—as the latter feared losing ground within the Shiʿi community to the former. The Hezbollah-Amal conflict lasted throughout the late 1980s, until Syria and Iran sponsored an agreement between the two Lebanese groups in 1990. The agreement reflected a modus vivendi between Syria and Iran that allowed Hezbollah to retain its arms and freedom of movement in the south of Lebanon to continue to fight the Israeli occupation. In return, Hezbollah recognized Amal’s sphere of influence and conceded to the 1989 Taif agreement, which marked the end of the Lebanese Civil War and rearranged the sharing of institutional power among Lebanon’s sects. This was a consequential shift in Hezbollah’s position: It went from trying to overthrow the sect-based governance system of Lebanon to participating in it. Also, Hezbollah had to recognize Syria’s paramount role in Lebanon, which was enshrined in the Taif Agreement. Doing so allowed Hezbollah to protect its arms and its ties to Iran because Assad had the power to cut it off from Iran and play Lebanese actors against the party.

In its formative years, Hezbollah was also frequently caught up in clerical factionalism in Iran. For example, in 1990, Sayyid Ali Akbar Mohtashami, Iran’s former ambassador to Syria who played a leading role in the establishment of Hezbollah, opposed Hezbollah’s participation in the Lebanese political process and insisted on boycotting Amal leader Nabih Berri. But other influential Iranian clerics, including Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, prodded Hezbollah to compromise with Syria and Amal and take part in the political process. After Khamenei became Iran’s leader, Hezbollah has carefully followed his views concerning divisive issues both in and outside Iran, partly to avoid entanglement in political factionalism between pragmatists, reformists, and hardliners. Over the past four decades, Iran and Hezbollah learned how to work out their differences and avoid potential conflicts for the sake of strategic goals. This has developed to the extent that Khamenei has effectively entrusted to Hezbollah the guiding of Iranian policy in Lebanon.

After the 2006 conflict with Israel, polls showed that Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah had some of the highest approval ratings among Arab publics. But those numbers plummeted after Hezbollah came to the support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian civil war that began in 2011. Why was Hezbollah willing to sacrifice that wider pan-Arab appeal? Was it because of instructions or pressure from Iran, sectarian fears, or something else?

The 2011 uprising against Assad in Syria posed a potential existential threat to Hezbollah. Salvaging a strategic ally in Damascus was vital for Hezbollah’s access to Iran and the flow of arms and material through Syrian territory. Additionally, because of Syria’s long-standing influence in Lebanon, the overthrow of Assad could have upset the internal Lebanese political balance to the detriment of Hezbollah and its allies. By declaring support for Assad, Hezbollah contradicted its position of supporting the other Arab Spring protests happening at the time, such as those in Bahrain, Egypt, and Tunisia. Hezbollah faced a mounting backlash both inside Lebanon and across the region for neglecting its resistance role against Israel and entering the civil war in Syria. The intervention was compounded by the fact that it was in support of an Alawi-dominated regime, which cast a sectarian color on Hezbollah’s position. This played into the hands of Hezbollah’s adversaries, such as Saudi Arabia, who proclaimed that Hezbollah was targeting the Sunnis in Syria. Yet, it seems that Hezbollah concluded that staying on the fence would have consequences far graver than entering the war.

The trajectory of the Syrian civil war helps to explain Hezbollah’s willingness to eventually pay the price of a substantial intervention there, beyond its initial political and rhetorical support for Assad. As the protests in Syria militarized and developed into a war with an array of regional and international players getting involved, Hezbollah in early 2013 began deepening its involvement in the war. As the regime escalated its crackdown, voices within the Syrian opposition grew louder in calling for the internationalization of the conflict by demanding foreign military intervention against Assad. Many in the opposition, especially the Istanbul-based Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, were so confident about a quick overthrow of Assad that they rejected the 2012 mediation efforts by Iranian and Hezbollah leaders. The opposition leaders were distrustful of Hezbollah and believed that NATO would intervene, as it had done in 2011 against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, to decapitate the Syrian regime. The regime’s violent crackdown also made dialogue with Assad increasingly unpopular among the opposition. Hezbollah justified its armed involvement in the Syrian conflict by pointing to the militarization of the Syrian opposition and the opposition’s demand for weapons and military intervention by the West. One town after another fell to rebel groups. As early as 2012, a Lebanese border strip with Syria, from Talkalakh in the north to the Damascus-Beirut highway in the south, slipped from the hands of the Syrian army and the strategic border towns of Zabadani and al-Qusayr came under rebel control. At the same time, groups affiliated with al-Qaida, which was well experienced in irregular fighting tactics, began to dominate the battlefield. These developments during the first two years of the uprising and war in Syria factored into Hezbollah’s substantial armed intervention, which began in al-Qusayr in April 2013 and then western Qalamoun and Zabadani, to recover its supply routes. This military involvement expanded into larger battles in Homs and Aleppo. As you said, the price was high for the pan-Islamist and pan-Arab popularity of Hezbollah. It seems, however, that Nasrallah concluded that Hezbollah risked losing its strategic depth in Syria, thus leaving them vulnerable in a fight with their adversaries within Lebanon. Hezbollah saw it as a matter of life or death.

How did the targeted killing in 2020 of Iranian General Qasim Soleimani by the U.S. affect Hezbollah and the Axis of Resistance?

The assassination of Soleimani created a sudden void in Iran’s ability to manage the complex security and political situation in the Arab East, particularly Iraq. Since his appointment to the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Qods Force (which occurred sometime between 1997 and 2000), Soleimani built a wide network of relationships with various actors across the region and forged close bonds with some of them. In contrast to the prevailing belief that Tehran commands and controls its so-called “proxies,” in many instances it takes a lot of effort by Iran to coordinate them. Soleimani’s personal characteristics, such as his humility and what Nasrallah calls his friendly manner, and influence among pro-Iranian non-state actors helped him effectively coordinate various components of the Axis and harmonize their potential conflicting interests, especially in Iraq. For example, in September 2019 Soleimani invited Muqtada al-Sadr to Iran and hosted him for days in an effort to find a solution to Sadr’s conflicting relationship with the Iran-affiliated Popular Mobilization Units and then-Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. After the assassination of Soleimani, Nasrallah stepped in to try to assume this role. Nasrallah’s charisma and respected standing among Iraqi Shiʿi factions have allowed Hezbollah to mediate and communicate Iran’s demands to these players in Iraq. The party played a similar mediating role between Hamas and Assad. Therefore, since the assassination of Soleimani, Hezbollah is playing a larger role in Iraq and continues to be a key actor in Syria.

In an interview, then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made an analogy between Iran’s network of influence and an octopus, revealing that Israel is now attacking its head (i.e., Iran). But the reality is that what exists is not really an octopus head with “proxy” tentacles reaching across the region. While Iran’s supreme leader exerts influence over non-state players in the Axis through material and ideational support, the relationship is more complex than a directive one. The key components of the Axis of Resistance—whether Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, or Ansarallah (also known as the Houthi movement) in Yemen—are each culturally, politically, and socially rooted in their respective national contexts and enjoy a noticeable autonomy from Tehran. For example, in 2006, Hamas made the consequential decision to take part in the Palestinian legislative elections despite reservations in Tehran about possible repercussions, and in 2015 Ansarallah attacked and invaded the Yemeni city of Aden despite the Qods Force’s objection. As for Hezbollah, its relationship with Iran over the past four decades has evolved to a point where Iran defers to it on political matters in Lebanon, such as forming electoral alliances or approving policies in the government or parliament, as long as they are in line with the interests of the Axis. Iran even sometimes relies on Hezbollah’s insight and capabilities in handling the complicated crosscurrents in the region. Rather than being an octopus with one head, the Axis of Resistance contains different heads, and it is the autonomy of the heads that makes the Axis versatile and impactful.

Lebanon’s economy is collapsing, and many Lebanese are calling for an end of the country’s post-civil war political system, which is widely seen as corrupt and dysfunctional. What challenges does Hezbollah face in the domestic Lebanese context?

The main threat to Hezbollah comes from inside Lebanon and is the consequence of the party’s entanglement in a state that runs on sectarian identity politics and patronage. Lebanon’s economic collapse since mid-2019, the currency’s freefall, corruption, and political paralysis ignited a series of protests against the political establishment. The triumvirate of Saad Hariri, Nabih Berri, and Walid Jumblatt are especially blamed by protesters for the decline of the country, but protesters criticize Hezbollah for not using its influence against corrupt politicians and for remaining a key pillar supporting a dysfunctional regime.

Hezbollah’s drift into Lebanese politics over the past thirty years, including forging political and electoral alliances with the political elite, has turned it into a defender of the status quo. In the 1980s, Hezbollah advocated the overthrow of the sectarian political regime, which it saw as an unjust legacy of French colonialism. But this changed in 1992 when, in the wake of the Taif Agreement, the party ran candidates for parliament. Between 1992 and 2005, the year the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon, Hezbollah’s political role was primarily oppositional from within the Lebanese Parliament. In this period, it had the advantageous position of being able to largely leave Lebanese domestic politics to its allies Nabih Berri and Syria, who more or less went along with the party’s resistance agenda. But after the 2005 Syrian withdrawal—and facing increasing calls by the Western-backed March 14 Alliance for Hezbollah’s disarmament—the party realized that it had to play a more direct role in Lebanese politics by appointing ministers in the cabinet. The Lebanese government’s decision in 2008 to shut down Hezbollah’s communications, which is crucial for its resistance capability, foreshadowed potential challenges from inside the government. This led to further entanglement in the political system as Hezbollah and its allies developed the power to block cabinet decisions and, in 2016, elevated General Michel Aoun to the presidency. This growing involvement in Lebanese politics has managed to, in the words of Nasrallah, “protect the back of resistance,” allowing the party to concentrate on regional fronts. But becoming a status quo player in Lebanon has damaged Hezbollah’s domestic political standing and cost the party its parliamentary majority in the most recent election, in May 2022. Although the Hezbollah-Amal coalition maintained its seats, their Christian and Druze allies lost seats. The political impasse and economic decline that has brought Lebanon to the verge of state failure could permeate Hezbollah’s base and weaken its influence on the Lebanese Shiʿi community. The post-Taif political system is deadlocked, cycling from stalemate to stalemate: unable to elect/appoint the president, prime minister, or a new parliament for months or even years due to disagreements among Lebanon’s parties and leaders. Why Hezbollah has chosen to remain a partisan of this status quo is perhaps due to its regional priorities and concern about potential conflict with Nabih Berri and Amal. But this will become a deeper dilemma confronting Hezbollah over time and is the principal threat to the party as it enters its fifth decade.

For more Crown Center publications on topics covered in this Conversation, see: "Continuity Despite Revolution: Iran’s Support for Non-State Actors," "Is Hezbollah Confronting a Crisis of Popular Legitimacy?" "Lebanon at the Brink: The Impact of the Syrian Civil War," and "The Shiite Community in Lebanon: From Marginalization to Ascendancy."

The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the author exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.