Hussein Kalout
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The irreplaceable piece
Lebanon’s strategic value in the Saudi–Iranian foreign policy chessboard
in Saudi Arabia and Iran

This chapter examines the ever-complex roles of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Lebanon. In this contribution, Lebanon is presented as the ‘irreplaceable piece’ in the foreign policy chessboard of competing Saudi–Iranian geostrategic ambitions in the Middle East. In a regional country where sectarian politics is arguably at its most overt, the chapter details how the Sunni and Shia political landscapes have been cultivated by Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively. This is shown as contributing to the continued political paralysis with the tutelary model of competition exercised by Iran and Saudi Arabia leading to a pronounced diminution of sovereignty.

In the history of the Middle East, Lebanon may appear as a neutral landscape where regional and international rivalries have played out – between the US and USSR during the Cold War, or between Iran and Saudi Arabia today. As a small state with a multifaceted social fabric, Lebanon has been treated as a passive player that becomes entangled in larger international machinations and geopolitical struggles. Lebanon itself does not matter in these narratives.

However, it is important to understand the development and consequences of social and political actors within Lebanon that have become regional actors and have reshaped the regional balance of power beyond the country’s borders. Rather than being a passive landscape with internal divisions, this approach looks at how domestic politics and domestic actors in Lebanon have strengthened over time and moved to impact the regional picture and shape the regional dynamics vis-à-vis the Lebanese state. Hezbollah, for example, has grown and morphed from an organisation concerned only with the Lebanese landscape and the Israeli–Lebanese conflict into perhaps one of the strongest actors in the region. But as Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran’s power grows, so too do Saudi fears that they will lose their hegemony in the Gulf region. Tehran, on the other hand, values Hezbollah’s increasing power as a deterrent to Israel that allows Iran to project force in the Levant.

In this context, Lebanon became an irreplaceable piece for Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s competing geostrategic ambitions in the Middle East. This chapter highlights how the clash to dominate the Lebanese arena has emerged as a national security matter for both Tehran and Riyadh. Thus, a refined foreign policy has been meticulously tailored by both sides after the Second Lebanon War in 2006. On the one hand, the Saudi Kingdom was determined to constrain Hezbollah’s domestic power as well as to obliterate its military capabilities while dominating the Lebanese political decision-making process enough to prevent Hezbollah from attaining political predominance. On the other hand, the ‘Party of God’, as Hezbollah literally means in Arabic, has become a precious asset and an invaluable deterrent power in the eyes of the Islamic Republic to counter Israeli influence in the Levant and to politically amalgamate the connection of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ from Tehran to Beirut. Over the last two decades, internal political divisions within Lebanon have become even more inextricably tied to two distinct political poles: one that revolves around a Saudi–Western alliance and another which promotes ties with Iran and Russia.

Since the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri and the subsequent 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel, the country has seen increased political and religious antagonism erode its tenuous sectarian balance. Two main political blocs have emerged in opposition to one another. The March 14 Coalition believes that aligning with Saudi Arabia, Europe and the US is necessary to extricate the country from the orbit of Iran and Syria. The March 8 Coalition, on the other hand, believes that an alliance with Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’ is vital to countering Israeli–Western dominance in the region.

The contrast between these two visions has hurled the country into consecutive constitutional impasses since 2006. The parliament’s 2014 decision to extend its mandate by an additional two years and seven months was, ultimately, a tactical manoeuvre to maintain the status quo, using the argument that new elections would constitute a major security risk given the fragile situation of the country. However, the social consequences of this decision have been considerable – it has undermined the legitimacy of the constitution and weakened Lebanese institutions and the democratic process.

Although the domestic conflict in Lebanon seems to primarily involve a clash of influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is important to remember that the situation is inextricably connected to the framework of competition between the Euro–American–Saudi and Russian–Syrian–Iranian axes. Thus, political turmoil in Lebanon will have consequences that reach far past its borders. Remnants of ISIS and ‘takfiri’-inspired ideology still exist in the interior of the country, and sectarian polarisation remains intense. Even though Lebanon has been able to successfully avoid an all-out civil war in the years since 2014, the nation’s internal and external tensions still pose a threat to stability.

This chapter explores how, in the last two decades, the regional security architecture has been largely influenced by Iranian and Saudi interests. Old rivalries succumbed and new alliances pivoted. Lebanon’s strategic value in the Saudi–Iranian foreign policy dimension increased year after year. The successive Israeli–Lebanese wars in 2000 and 2006, the downfall of several Arab regimes in the region and the worsening of the Syrian civil war in 2012 transformed Lebanon into an irreplaceable strategic piece for both sides.

The Sunni political landscape in Lebanon

In an historical perspective, the involvement of Saudi Arabia within Lebanon has shifted frequently, relying less on long-standing alliances with any single entity and more on strategic alignments with groups and individuals that could be incentivised to oppose pro-Iranian interests. The Saudis generally failed to organise a unified social base or direct all of their resources towards building up one local Sunni political party. Nor have they ever successfully brought together a diverse, broad-based coalition within Lebanon’s variegated Sunni Muslim community.

Perhaps the main exception to this trend of shifting, singular alignments for the Saudis is the Hariri clan, whom they have supported as their allies in the country’s politics since the Taif Agreement in 1989.1 The Saudis believed that they could pursue their main objectives in Lebanon by building up the Hariri clan’s sizable political base within the country’s parliament and aligning Saudi interests with those of the prime minister’s cabinet members.2 Using these sources of internal, institutional power, the Saudis sought to obstruct Iran’s efforts to extend the control of Shia political groups, such as Hezbollah, over Lebanese politics.

However, the Saudis’ efforts here focused solely on the Hariri clan, which, despite holding the single largest share of Sunni representation, does not represent the interests of all of the various parts of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community. By doing so, the Saudis alienated other Sunni groups, such as the Karami and Solh clans, and inadvertently fragmented the Sunni community into several political parties. Furthermore, the political landscape was already treacherous for any sort of efforts aimed at unifying Lebanon’s Sunni population under one banner. During the 1960s and 1970s, multiple secular pan-Arab parties played a vital role in Lebanese politics – and although they were not characterised by religious identity, they did capture much of the Sunni population’s support. The turmoil of the civil war served only to fragment these interests, deepening resentments and weakening most groups. After the Taif Agreement, the Saudis seemed to believe that the Hariri clan’s political clout could unite these competing groups with some help from the Kingdom’s vast financial resources. The political parties claiming to represent the interests of Lebanon’s Sunni population, however, have remained deeply divided.

Four main groups exist within this landscape of Sunni-dominated parties. Some of them are ostensibly secular, while others more openly espouse a sectarian bent. Only one, the Future Party of Hariri, aligns consistently with Saudi interests, while some of the other factions often consider the Kingdom a strategic rival. The four groups are as follows:

  1. Nasserist pan-Arab parties, which include a fairly diverse range of groups:
    1. The Popular Nasserist Organization of Osama Saad, an historical pan-Arab movement based in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon;
    2. The Lebanese Syrian Social Nationalist Party, another pan-Arab party;
    3. Tayar al-Karama, formerly known as the Arab Liberation Party, a group dominated by the Karami clan and opposed to the Hariri clan, albeit with a balanced relationship with Saudi Arabia;
    4. The Union Party, led by former minister Abdul Rahim Mourad, a traditional Sunni pan-Arab group espousing an ideology of secular Nasserism;
    5. The Lebanese wing of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party;
    6. The Independent Nasserite Movement, also known as Al-Mourabitoun;
  2. The pro-Saudi Future Party, dominated by the Hariri clan;
  3. Secular independent parties such as the Azm Movement of former prime minister Najib Mikati;
  4. Pan-Islamist anti-Salafist groups such as Al-Ahbash and al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya.

All of the pan-Arab parties have long since been rejected by Riyadh as potential allies, as Saudi Arabia viewed pan-Arab movements as a threat to its own political legitimacy and thus worked to undermine them. Instead, former prime minster Rafic Hariri built a strong relationship with the Saudi royal family over the course of many years, gaining their support for his party’s claim to act on behalf of the Sunni sect in Lebanon since 1990. An endorsement as the ‘legitimate’ political representative of the Kingdom’s interests in Lebanon carries with it a great deal of weight for those who believe in Saudi Arabia’s special status as a protector of the Islamic faith – without Saudi endorsement, it would be nearly impossible for a Sunni religious-political leader to gain widespread support in Lebanon3 – but it clearly does not mean that all Sunni political groups will fall in line.

In fact, in the years since 2006, Riyadh has had to shift its diplomatic modus operandi in order to counterbalance the increasing dominance of Hezbollah. Saudi support now flows in various forms to a variety of other parties – particularly those aligned with Lebanon’s Christian population, such as the Maronite militia-turned-political party known as the Lebanese Forces. Now, just as in the past, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and its allies is generally not characterised by ideological alignment, but rather Riyadh will work with groups of any sectarian or ideological grouping so long as they have a possibility of counterbalancing Iranian and Syrian influences. For the House of Al Saud, an increase in the power of a Sunni party in Lebanon only benefits their interests if its strategic objectives align with this overarching goal – preventing Iran from influencing the Lebanese political decision-making process will curtail Tehran’s force-projection capabilities in the region and build up Saudi hegemony, whether that involves extending Saudi control in Lebanese politics or simply disrupting Iran’s dominance.4 The evolution of Saudi foreign policy towards Lebanon from 1990 to the present reflects this key consideration at each step of the way.

The Saudi model for Lebanon

In order to gain a comprehensive perspective on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy towards Lebanon, we must first note one of the key principles of the Kingdom’s model of diplomacy that has now persisted for forty years. Saudi Arabia and Iran have a paradoxical foreign policy doctrine and different methodological models of diplomatic implementation. Whilst the Saudi model is verticalised and relies on financial sources to achieve the country’s objectives in something resembling a mercantilist formula, the Iranian one is horizontal and based on transversal cooperation without trade-off machination and incorporating a strong component of ideological linkage. In order to better understand the different methodologies and variables at play in the case of Lebanon, we can look at the two competing models which, in this case, are exemplified by the strategic approaches of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia has never organised a bloc of support based on ideology. Instead, Saudi Arabia’s methodological approach centres on the power of petro-dollar coercive diplomacy, seeking to use forms of economic incentivisation to counterbalance Iran’s presence in the country. The Saudis have vast economic resources at their disposal, and the main way that they incentivise Lebanese actors to align themselves with their own political interests is by supporting these groups financially. The relation among Riyadh and certain political groups in Lebanon tends to be transactional rather than based on an ideological framework.

The Saudis view their role in the region as something of a guardian of Sunni Muslim empowerment, increasing their regional influence throughout the Middle East and establishing a tutelary model that will provide them with long-term control over the internal functioning of Lebanon’s political system even in the face of unfavourable demographic changes in that country. In the specific case of Lebanon, the Saudis began employing their strategy of economic incentivisation mostly in the 1990s, moving to fill the relative power vacuum that the Iranians were simultaneously seeking to exploit. Since then, the Saudis have endeavoured to maintain friendly Sunni groups in power and make sure that they are perceived as legitimate by the wider population. Geopolitically, this strategic architecture has been oriented – at least since the 2006 Lebanese–Israeli War – towards preventing the establishment and consolidation of a Shia axis of power reaching from Iran’s western border to the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Saudis’ strategy primarily aims to control internal aspects of Lebanon’s power structures, and they expect to use this internal control to limit the ability of pro-Iranian groups to engage in externally focused operations. Riyadh hopes that by controlling the internal structure of the country it can curtail the expansion of Iranian power both within Lebanon and within the region as a whole. From the Saudi point of view, the Kingdom plays a diplomatic role as the protector of Sunni Muslims in the Middle East and beyond. In the perspective of Saudi foreign policy, ‘Iran was responsible for regional upheaval and sought to obscure its dangerous sectarian and expansionist policies, as well as its support for terrorism, by leveling unsubstantiated charges against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’ Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi foreign minister, also argued that Iran is ‘the single-most-belligerent-actor in the region, and its actions display both a commitment to regional hegemony and a deeply held view that conciliatory gestures signal weakness either on Iran’s part or on the part of its adversaries’.5

The three phases of Saudi foreign policy towards Lebanon

Saudi foreign policy has maintained the same overarching goals throughout all three of these phases – countering the expansion of Iranian power in the Levant and using petro-dollar diplomacy to extend its control over Lebanese internal politics – but the areas of focus and the methods by which they seek to achieve them have changed over time. Some of this is in response to the manoeuvres of Iran and Hezbollah, while other changes result from shifting geopolitical calculations – for instance, the exogenous shock of the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah War. The three main phases in the evolution of Saudi foreign policy towards Lebanon from the end of the Lebanese Civil War to the present are described below.

Following from the Taif Agreement (1990–2005)

When the Taif Agreement brought an end to the Lebanese Civil War, it coincided with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, the regional powers of the Middle East replaced the influence of the Cold War superpowers and their European allies by playing an assertive ‘tutelary’ role over the Lebanese political system. Saudi Arabia and Syria emerged as the first main stakeholders within the Lebanese political arena followed closely by Iran due to its influence over Hezbollah and the south of the country.6

Saudi Arabia and Syria adopted a tacit division of roles within this tutelary system, with Damascus building up the country’s security and defence apparatus while Riyadh guided the process of economic reconstruction. It was during this time that Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and his allies from a variety of sectarian backgrounds worked closely with Saudi officials to organise the reconstruction process,7 becoming something of a kingmaker in the economic arena.8 However, despite this considerable influence, most of the Saudis’ power only extended as far as their economic patronage, which primarily flowed to Hariri’s Future Party and was then distributed to other party leaders such as Fouad Siniora and Marwan Hamadeh. Unlike with Iran’s Hezbollah, there was no political party functioning as a full-on ideological proxy for Saudi interests and no cohesive Sunni base that shared their goals. In this period Saudi Arabia has had a very moderate and constructive diplomatic role within the Lebanese political landscape.

The rupture with Syria and the Israel–Hezbollah War (2005–2016)

In 2004, Hariri stepped down as prime minister after a series of disagreements with Damascus over the continued presence of Syrian military forces in Lebanon. His subsequent assassination in 2005 led to the Cedar Revolution, a popular outpouring against Syrian involvement in Lebanese affairs which, with the support of Western powers, led to the end of Syria’s tutelary role. Bolstered by this, the Hariri clan’s Future Party won the 2005 parliamentary elections at the head of the March 14 Coalition. After defeating the March 8 Coalition by a margin of 69–57 seats, Fouad Siniora, one of Hariri’s main allies, became prime minster. Saad Hariri, Rafic’s son, then became the new leader of the Hariri clan and acted as a power-player in the internal dynamics of the Future Party, further consolidating their leadership.

Bassel Salloukh argues that ‘long before the popular uprisings snaked their way to Syria, Lebanon had emerged as a site for two overlapping political struggles. At the domestic level, Hariri’s Saudi-sponsored Future Movement sought to re-establish its control over the state’s political, judicial and bureaucratic institutions immediately following the withdrawal of Syrian troops on April 26, 2005.’9 On the regional stage, the Saudis and Iranians continued their manoeuvring for primacy and influence in Lebanese politics – a struggle reflected in the positioning of the March 8 and March 14 blocs.

But in 2006 came another shock to domestic politics and the regional order alike. Cross-border fighting between Hezbollah and Israel culminated in an air, sea and land invasion by the Israel Defense Forces into Lebanese territory. In an effort to restore the balance and improve their strategic position, Saudi Arabia put pressure on its allies within the country to force the demilitarisation of Hezbollah and limit Iran’s ability to wage a proxy war against Israel. In order to accomplish this, the Saudis rallied an international coalition of Western powers to make similar demands and began using their economic leverage to increase Hariri’s base of popular support. Sectarian cleavages were exacerbated, and Lebanon’s domestic politics were immobilised by a lack of cooperation between pro- and anti-Iranian groups. The main representative of Iran’s agenda was, of course, Hezbollah, but the pro-Saudi groups came from a variety of backgrounds and did not constitute any sort of united front. Michel Aoun, a prominent Maronite politician, sealed a crucial deal with Hezbollah in 2006, and their coalition went on to win the 2009 parliamentary elections; Saudi pressure had failed to demilitarise Hezbollah and deprive Iran of its main avenue of force projection in the Levant. The installation of Saad Hariri as prime minister that same year was simply a concession designed to prevent further sectarian conflict. This status quo would effectively be maintained until large-scale uprisings against the Assad regime emerged in 2011, a development that piqued the interest of all major powers in the region.

With the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2012, Saudi Arabia readjusted its foreign policy strategy yet again. Sectarian tensions in Lebanon heightened, and the Kingdom sought to support groups advocating for regime change in Syria. Their modus operandi involved bankrolling media campaigns, asking Western powers to implement sanctions against the Assad regime, blocking the exploration of gas resources in the region and tightening their control over Lebanon’s legal and economic institutions.10

Joseph Bahout argues that ‘Syria’s crisis is intensifying Sunni-Shia tensions in Lebanon on two levels, symbolic and identity-based on the one hand, and geopolitical or interest based, on the other hand.’11 In parallel, Salloukh explains that besides the multi-sectarian coalitions’ disagreements over mixed visions of Lebanon, its security priorities and its alliance choices, these components nevertheless exemplified a political struggle among the mainly Sunni and Shia political elite and their external patrons over who should control the post-Syria Lebanese state.12

If the Assad regime fell, the Saudis could cut off any remaining avenues of resource provision for Iran’s allies and strangle their opponents in the domestic political arena. But Assad’s regime, with the support of the Russian Federation, did survive. The 2015 negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 further strengthened the position of the Saudis’ opponents, forcing Riyadh to reconsider its strategy.

Moving on from Acephaly (from 2016)

The year 2016 saw the re-election of Michel Aoun as president, ending a two-year period of political deadlock and acephaly that had paralysed Lebanese domestic politics. Aoun had positioned himself as a candidate friendly to Hezbollah in order to secure his victory and made concessions to Sunni families in the appointment of cabinet positions to broaden his appeal. Saad Hariri accompanied him as prime minister, signifying the agreement between pro-Saudi and pro-Iranian blocs.

After the above election outcomes, the Saudis, under pressure from France,13 adopted a less involved but more confrontational policy towards Lebanon. They encouraged Western powers and the Gulf states to level sanctions on the country while curtailing their own economic investments, hastening the collapse of the Lebanese economy. They cooperated with US President Donald Trump to enact a campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran and its allies. Trump’s administration even withdrew the US from the JCPOA, making the future of the agreement precarious, to say the least. But despite these efforts, Hariri lost ground in the parliament,14 and the position of Saudi Arabia’s transaction-based internal alliances weakened. Iran’s ideologically aligned allies triumphed in the 2018 elections and allowed Hariri to keep his position as prime minister. This move would help legitimise the government in the eyes of the Sunni population and de-sectarianise the domestic political situation somewhat, staving off an outbreak of violence. Despite ideological divergences, the pro-Iranian bloc’s recognition that Hariri is the major Sunni representative leader was beyond a mere diplomatic move intended to preserve the socio-religious and political stability of the country. It was, in fact, a strategic sign that Iran’s allies were ready to keep working with the pro-Saudi alliance and also to preserve the peaceful détente in the elite political landscape that was created in 2016 with the installation of Aoun as head of state and Hariri as head of government.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia realised that it committed a deadly mistake in 2017 when it arrested Hariri on Saudi territory and forced him to step down as prime minister and to decry Iran and Hezbollah, damaging his legitimacy and revealing more clearly the transactional nature of their relationship. French President Emmanuel Macron intervened in the situation and negotiated Hariri’s release, but the damage was already done. In 2018, Hariri and his allies lost the parliamentary elections, strengthening the electoral position of Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian parties. Macron’s intervention was crucial to re-establish the 2016 national pact among the three major sects of the country, but the Saudis now found themselves in a state of flux, seeking to realign their circumstantial, instrumental relationships in order to counterbalance Iran’s strong ideological ties.

The 2019–2020 popular demonstrations in the country, later dubbed the October Revolution, attacked the government’s inability to provide sufficient services for the civilian population as well as its issues with corruption. The protests led Hariri to tender his resignation, setting the stage for Hassan Diab, with the support of Hezbollah and its allies, to replace him as prime minister. Although the October Revolution did not fundamentally alter the chessboard of Saudi and Iranian manoeuvres, it did provide the Saudis with a chance to undermine a Hezbollah-dominated government, in part by mobilising popular dissent and dissatisfaction.

In the last two years, Saudi Arabia has determined that neutralising Lebanon – in effect, preventing it from becoming an Iranian ally – would be a victory as far as it is concerned. Its new strategic approach involves endorsing and sponsoring, both directly and indirectly, the continuation of the October Revolution of 2019 against the existing political system – this strategic approach has been discussed by the Lebanese political analyst Salem Zahran.15 Instead of relying on groups like Hariri’s, the Saudis are now working to support popular movements against state corruption and foreign influence. Riyadh knows that its allies within the system have failed to counter Hezbollah during the first and second phases of their foreign policy evolution, but its statesmen may be able to achieve the Kingdom’s goals by empowering popular dissent against all establishment political actors – especially representatives of foreign interference such as Hezbollah.

The Iranian model: Ideological alignment

According to Shahram Akbarzadeh, ‘Iran’s foreign policy could appear chaotic and contradictory. The consolidation of Iran’s reorientation towards Russia under Ahmadinejad’s presidency presented a marked departure from the revolutionary rhetoric of the Islamic regime in its early years.’ In the Iranian press, Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy reorientation and his outreach to the member nations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization became known as the ‘Look to the East’. Such efforts marked a strong current of Iranian diplomacy towards Russia, China and India in order to find potential allies who could counterbalance the threat posed to Tehran by Western nations who were already heavily involved in the Middle East.16 Iran’s allies in Lebanon started to reproduce the same discourse by looking to the East in order to offset the power of the West. In Hezbollah’s view, keeping an eye on the East clearly means seeking out an alignment with the interests of Iran, Russia and China – the main rivals to Saudi Arabia, France and the US in the region.

Iran’s individual strategy in the region involves emphasising points of ideological alignment that will encourage actors within Lebanon to cooperate with Iran regardless of resource provision. Undoubtedly Iran provides resources (often in the form of armaments) to those groups that it cooperates with in this scenario, but due to the underlying ideological alignment of interests, the activities of these groups will continue benefiting Iran’s general strategy in the region even if resources are not provided.

Mabon and Wastnidge emphasise that religion plays a prominent role in domestic and foreign politics across the region. It serves as a source of legitimacy and a means of uniting people. However, it also can play a divisive role for social, political and economic relations. During the Lebanese Civil War, local actors involved in the fighting sought external patrons to support their cause, while external actors sought local patrons in pursuit of their own agendas. The nature of these relationships differed across time and space, reflecting myriad, often competing agendas at play. Shared sectarian identities have provided increased opportunities for the cultivation of trans-state networks and relationships – the ongoing trend towards sectarianisation of political life has increased this possibility as well.17

This approach is possible in large part because of Iran’s strong historical connections to the region as well as the relationships and credibility that they have built up over many years of involvement. It is overall much less concerned with the internal activities of actors within Lebanon and more focused on their external, regional action – take, for instance, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. The ultimate goal for this strategy is to expand Iranian power and influence in not only Lebanon, but the region as a whole. Amal Saad argues that Hezbollah’s leadership believes that Lebanese self-determination and sovereignty will only be granted by acquiring deterrence power vis-à-vis Israel. To Hezbollah, this path involves acting in several chessboards, such as the Syrian one, under Iran’s tutelage.18 It is easy to see how this dovetails quite effectively with the Iranian geopolitical objective of constructing its ‘Axis of Resistance’ from its western border to the Mediterranean Sea.

Hezbollah’s opponents in Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Forces Party, the Falange Party and the Future Party, view Iranian influence over Lebanon as an obstacle to national unity and to the progress of the Lebanese state, particularly vis-à-vis the Western countries and the Gulf monarchies. Leaders within the pro-Saudi bloc such as Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party, argue that Lebanon is a hostage of what he calls the ‘double occupation model’. In his view, Israel occupies the country through its southern borders while Hezbollah does so through its role in government, implementing the Iranian security agenda in Lebanon.19

From the Saudi allies’ perspective, the asymmetric power of Hezbollah within the country has two impacts. The first involves the breakdown of the existing governmental rules that had underlaid the Saudi strategy of gaining domestic political control, and the second is the creation of a ‘parallel state within the state’ beyond the reach of Riyadh’s influence. The fragmentation between those aligned with the western bloc and those aligned with Iran has a significant effect on Lebanese national defence strategy and to the country’s foreign policy. Moreover, the confrontation also takes place in matters such as the revision of electoral regulations as well as in the spectrum of structural economic reforms. The pro-Iranian coalition has made a trade-off deal by agreeing with an electoral law that preserves the pro-Saudi bloc’s preferred electoral landscape in exchange for that bloc’s not raising the question of demilitarising Hezbollah.20 This compromise, in addition to ensuring internal peace, also aligns with Iran’s preference for regional force-projection capability over internal power dynamics.

This dynamic could also shed light on the processes by which Hezbollah has turned into a regional actor and the consequences this has for regional politics and Lebanese domestic politics alike. It produces new knowledge on how to think about and approach the subject of Lebanon in Middle East geopolitics – from a passive actor or neutral landscape that always becomes entangled and pulled into regional conflicts to an active actor and an active landscape. Furthermore, Iran’s strategy in this theatre can shed light on similar processes that are occurring throughout the Middle East, from the rise of Ansar Allah as a domestic Yemeni party to a regional actor able to deter and strike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and possibly the rise of other non-state actors such as the Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq. The operational-level manoeuvres in each of these examples vary depending on the local context, but all of them point to a shared strategic framework that the Iranians are employing. Since 2006, Tehran’s regional security doctrine has centred on empowering allied non-state actors to help them become more influential and powerful than state actors in regional geopolitics.21

Iran, with its majority Shia population, has been viewed as a threat by Arab rulers whose rivalry with the country has long dominated the security calculations of Middle Eastern states.22 This perception has played out in Lebanese society in the form of a narrative holding that Hezbollah will dominate Lebanese politics in order to shift the Lebanese sectarian power-sharing system to one mainly dominated by Shia groups. In this narrative, Hezbollah seeks to accomplish this by positioning pro-Iranian allies into top-ranked positions in the state apparatus. This perception has further deepened pre-existing sectarian cleavages and led the country towards religious tension that erupted into armed clashes in the streets of Beirut in 2008 between pro-Iranian and pro-Saudi groups. Furthermore, this narrative heightened the paralysis of domestic institutions by contributing to a serious vacuum of power – approximately two years without a president in office. Mutual concessions made by both blocs were necessary in order to bring an end to this state of political deadlock. Hariri and his supporters agreed to accept Aoun as president, and Aoun and his supporters agreed to accept Hariri as prime minister. Neither side was able to achieve their most desired outcome, but the division of power in parliament and the pressure of public opinion necessitated such a compromise.23

Lebanese politics and Hezbollah’s emergence

When looking at the analysis of the foundation, trajectory and structure of an organisation like Hezbollah, it is necessary to preliminarily observe the historical situation and the idiosyncrasies that guided the formation of Lebanon’s social, religious and political framework.

The impacts of the Cold War on the geopolitical framework of the Middle East and, in particular, its reflections on the fifteen years of the Lebanese Civil War comprise, in the end, a set of ordinations that make it possible to search the foundations of the group beyond its militaristic apparatus and of their nationalist cause.

Such instruments, however, do not in themselves explain the consolidation of Hezbollah as one of the most influential political forces in the Middle East. One of the most important things to keep in mind when decoding the evolution of the group is to understand that Hezbollah passed through four antagonistic phases linked to regional developments from its foundation to the present day. Some of the defining periods in the evolution of Hezbollah’s regional force projection include the Second Israeli–Lebanese War in 2006 and Hezbollah’s engagement in the Syrian war, starting in 2012, alongside the forces of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

However, the historical root and the catalysing elements that drove the emergence of Hezbollah fundamentally derive from the combination of four essential factors: (1) marginalisation of the Shiite population in the Lebanese sociopolitical context; (2) the abandonment of the south of the country by the Lebanese state apparatus, including with regard to the protection of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; (3) the Iran–Iraq War between 1980 and 1988; (4) Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 known, respectively, as ‘Operation Litani’ and ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’.24

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the vacuum left by the Lebanese armed forces in defence of the country’s territorial integrity fuelled the emergence of a conglomerate of paramilitary forces called the ‘Lebanese nationalist resistance’ that had been erected to repel Israel’s military incursion. In the midst of this scenario, the seed that led to the constitution of Hezbollah that same year and its consequent official proclamation in 1985 would germinate.25

Since its formation, Hezbollah has gone through four antagonistic political phases marked by profound distinctions. Depending on the analytical perspective, it is possible to say that the group oscillated through intermittent phases of ideological inflections and political inconsistencies. In this sense, the appropriate format that allows a description of the group’s trajectory consists of stratifying its evolution in temporal periods and the indicative classification of the nature of each phase as follows: Structuralist (1982–1984), Fundamentalist (1985–1991), Constructivist (1992–2005) and Regionalist (2006–2016).

Structuralist phase (1982–1984)

The first phase, which we will refer to as ‘Structuralist’, marks the foundation of the group as an indigenous movement of nationalist resistance against foreign occupation. The group presented itself as an armed movement of a nationalist nature willing to defend the national territory, particularly the southern region of Lebanon, from repeated Israeli invasions.

In this first phase, Hezbollah’s objective was detached from greater political or hegemonic aspirations both at the national and regional levels. From an armed perspective, it was a relatively rudimentary, ill-equipped organisation that lacked a long-term strategy. Despite this, the movement was recognised, albeit to a limited extent, as a popular and legitimate organisation.

Fundamentalist phase (1985–1991)

The second phase is classified as ‘Fundamentalist’. The political topology of the group during this period turned to an extreme bias from the religious perspective and a refractory compass from the sociopolitical perspective. The group oscillated between oblique nationalist court speeches and constant flirtations with separatism, often referring to the possibility of southern Lebanon becoming independent from the rest of the country, establishing an Islamic republic along the lines of Iran.26

The impact of the Iranian Revolution and the course of the Iran–Iraq War influenced the organisation’s political narrative significantly. Particularly at this stage, the rate of rejection of Hezbollah was high among the Lebanese public and, above all, among secular Shiite Muslims.

The eagerness to gain legitimacy and the desire to expand its power over the predominantly Shiite pockets resulted in two wars between Hezbollah and the main Shiite political party at the time, the Amal Movement, which took place in 1988 and 1989.27 The Amal, established in 1974, was the alma mater of the top leaders who laid the foundation of Hezbollah in the 1980s.

It is important to note that during the 1980s, the relationship between Syria and Iran in the Lebanese political landscape had been affected by scepticism and diverging views about the role of Hezbollah in the country. According to Edward Wastnidge, ‘There were some tensions between Iran and Syria during the 1980s due to Hezbollah’s rise, checking the power of the Syrian-backed Shia faction Amal.’28 Damascus, for its part, was concerned about the Amal faction’s loss of hegemony within the Shia base, but eventually came to a political armistice with Tehran.

In 1989, when peace negotiations between the various Lebanese political factions were initiated with the aim of imposing an end to the civil war that devastated the country, Hezbollah was one of the only national forces that rejected the Taif Agreement,29 adopted in October 1989 in Saudi Arabia. The Taif Agreement, in essence, has been operating since 1990 as a new ‘social contract’ and a legal-political framework tailored to address the asymmetries that outlined the moulds of sectarian democracy in Lebanon.30 According to Salloukh,31 the Taif Agreement could be read in many different ways. It could be framed as a ceasefire agreement among the Lebanese militias after the civil war, as a document reorganising the sharing of power and governance in Lebanon through an equal redistribution of offices among the major sects – but it also elevates sectarianism as the only mode of political organisation and the only meaningful one – where independent movements are not seen as legitimate outside their sects’ ruling leaders. The preservation of this status quo allows Tehran and Riyadh to interfere constantly in the domestic politics through their mutual allies and sectarian linkages.

Constructivist phase (1992–2005)

The ‘Constructivist’ phase, however, represents a shift in Hezbollah’s structure, approach and modus operandi. In practice, a revolution was underway that intended for a re-foundation of the organisation’s structural pillars. Part of these reforms led to the removal of the party’s general secretary, Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, considered the main actor responsible for the intra-Shiite conflict with the Amal Movement and an obstacle to the Taif Agreement.

In addition, al-Tufayli and his political nucleus were responsible for the installation of the ‘Fundamentalist’ phase and the divisionism implanted in the country’s sociopolitical sphere, especially in the Shiite Bantustans in the south of the territory, in the Beqaa Valley region and in the southern periphery of Beirut known as Dahieh. The decision to expel al-Tufayli was formulated by the young party leadership, captained by Sayyed Abbas al-Musawi32 and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah33 in concert with Tehran and Damascus – who also saw in the separatist narrative brought up by al-Tufayli and his supporters a dangerous and anachronistic risk. As a result of Syrian and Iranian influence on Hezbollah (and Lebanon in general), al-Tufayli was left with no option but to resign from his position.

This period was decisive for Hezbollah to direct its strategic priorities, particularly vis-à-vis its political aspiration to brand itself on the national political scene as a political party, as a nationalist resistance movement34 and as a social assistance entity. Therefore, at this stage, Hezbollah was compelled to carry out a profound reform to survive within Lebanese politics, recognising the legitimacy of the Taif Agreement and adopting a more pragmatic stance on the domestic political scene.

Since rising to the post of Secretary General of the party in 1992, Nasrallah has emerged as a skilled articulator and expert speaker, captivating the masses and reinvigorating Hezbollah’s identity. Political pragmatism and the change in the group’s approach within Lebanese society were determining factors in the party’s rapprochement with the country’s various Christian and Muslim political segments. At this stage, Hezbollah crossed the bridge from sectarian political culture to nationalist political culture.35

Additionally, Nasrallah’s prudence and coolness in shaping the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, as well as its geostrategic implications for the country and the region, placed him among the most influential political leaders in the Arab world.36 Indeed, Nasrallah emerged as an Aristotelian political actor in every way: a strategist capable of deciphering in detail the rules of the regional political game. Nevertheless, despite Nasrallah’s adroit political manoeuvring, there was also a great deal of dissatisfaction among members of the political elite who aligned themselves with the March 14 Coalition.37 Some of these political elites, particularly among the Sunni and Maronite segments of the population, were afraid that Nasrallah’s rapid accumulation of power on the national stage would weaken their own leadership positions within their sects. With his increasing power, Nasrallah’s ability to potentially oppose the economic interests of certain major groups grew significantly, compounding these concerns.38

Regionalist phase (2006–2016)

Hezbollah’s ‘Regionalist’ phase began in the period following the Second Israeli–Lebanese War in 2006. In practically all senses, this new phase has become emblematic for Hezbollah, Lebanon and the Middle East. It was during this phase that Hezbollah cemented its status as one of the most militarily powerful groups in the region, even though it was technically a non-state actor.

The results of the July War, as the group calls it, sparked a series of internal and external disputes, deepening the political–sectarian divide in Lebanon and also triggering a series of schisms between Hezbollah and some Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. The group’s military power came to be seen as an artefact of ‘regional deterrence’ vis-à-vis the parameters that determine the distribution of regional power.

One of the striking features of this phase is the degree of power and influence that Hezbollah came to hold over the framework of collective security in the Middle East. In addition, the group’s subsequent engagement in the Syrian civil war alongside the armed forces of the regime – their combined forces fighting against the interests of Daesh and its supporters such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey according to Bashar al-Assad himself – increased Hezbollah’s relevance at the regional level.39 The combination of these two theorems shows that the group is no longer a political appendage constrained by local politics or an actor with a restricted role in Lebanese territory. Hezbollah came to be seen as a key player in the gear of the pro-Iranian bloc called the ‘Axis of Resistance’ and a geostrategic danger to regional powers antagonistic to the Russian–Syrian–Iranian strategic alignment in particular.

The group’s rise to the level of regional actor changed the strategic framework of the Middle-Eastern geopolitical playing field, especially as a non-state actor began to impact the rules of the game among the main power holders in the region such as Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, further intensifying the asymmetries between the group and the Arab countries that oppose Iran.

In Amal Saad’s theoretical framework of the structure of Hezbollah within Lebanon, she states that ‘Hizbullah’s deployment of both “hard” military power and “soft” normative power throughout the region represents a new paradigm in international relations; it is a non-state actor which performs some of the central functions of the state, effectively making it a state within a non-state in the Lebanese context, while also fulfilling some of the strategic imperatives of a regional power.’40 These strategic imperatives involve not only operations within Lebanon, but also the projection of force beyond its borders, such as in the Syrian civil war.

However, it is important to underline that the military and political cost of Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian conflict is substantial. From the group’s perspective, engagement in the Syrian conflict would be not only a strategic involvement to assist an historic ally like the Bashar al-Assad regime, but a matter of survival for Lebanon’s organisation and socio-religious cohesion.

On the other hand, in the post-2006 period, the party constantly emphasised that its military arsenal would not be used against Arabs and Muslims, but rather in the defence of Lebanon’s territorial integrity against eventual confrontation with the Israel Defense Forces.41 In this case, its intervention in Syria overturns this premise and casts a shadow over what the group’s strategy and narrative will look like in the post-Syrian conflict process.

The conversion of Hezbollah into a regional player and one of the strongholds of strategic influence in the region reveals that the organisation has reached the threshold of influence capable of impacting not only the pillars of the collective security order, but also the outlines of the geostrategic architecture of the processes of peace and war in the Middle East, especially in the Levant. Saad explains some of the implications of this new position of power for Hezbollah, which, while proving costly in human and material terms, has increased its influence exponentially and given added credence to its threats. Its interoperability with other actors in the ‘Axis of Resistance’ and the interlinking of all battlefield arenas has transformed its ‘Resistance Army’ into the backbone of a much larger armed body which is ready and willing to deploy ‘hundreds of thousands of resistance fighters from all around the Arab and Islamic world’ to Hezbollah’s defence in case of an Israeli attack, to borrow Nasrallah’s words.42

Finally, it is easy to see that since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, Beirut has become a key player in the intricate political landscape that mires the Arab and Muslim world. Furthermore, it occupies a position on the central stage of the geopolitical clash playing out between some of the main regional powers in the Middle East, especially the Iranians and the Saudis. The country’s geostrategic location makes it into a region of vital importance for any power seeking to extend its control over the Levant.

Conclusion

The clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran manifests in a range of different ways across the region as a consequence of the interaction of regional forces with local politics. Across the Middle East, religious, ethnic, social, communal, tribal and economic issues have provided opportunities for Saudi Arabia and Iran to exert influence across the region, albeit in myriad ways across different spaces. For example, the way the rivalry between the two states manifests in Yemen is dramatically different to Lebanon as a consequence of the interaction of geopolitical issues with local politics and identities.

One of the main effects of this tutelary model competition exercised by Iran and Saudi Arabia over the past years within Lebanon is a pronounced diminution of sovereignty. The long-term establishment of tutelary models of this type has effects that reach far and deep in sociopolitical power dynamics both inside and outside of the country. Practically all of Lebanon’s political and state structures have been affected, and the longer that the tutelary models stay in place, the greater their penetration will be.

In recent years, the emergence of the March 8 and March 14 political coalitions and the complete state of impasse that existed between them from 2014 to 2016 has demonstrated the immense degree of polarisation within Lebanon. But although the country has long experienced serious (and often violent) sectarian-based political divides, these recent developments have indicated the extent to which these divides have become inextricably linked to the regional power struggle playing out between Tehran and Riyadh. Lebanon remains a heated geopolitical battleground, with its internal political struggles becoming increasingly subsumed within the strategic chessboard that pits the interests of the Saudi–Europe–US axis against their Russia–Syria–Iran-aligned counterparts.

This leaves us with some important questions to ask about Lebanon’s situation, both in terms of the nation’s future and our conceptual understanding of its political reality: does national self-determination still matter as a concept for our understanding of Lebanon’s government? And can we still consider Lebanon a sovereign state?

Hence, we must analyse Hezbollah’s domestic and regional involvements. Hezbollah has become the source of state power of Lebanon. Tactical pragmatism allowed the organisation to become more than one important actor in the Lebanese political scene and willing for other groups to share power or control. Hezbollah became the stakeholder in matters regarding Lebanese security and regional foreign policy.

While the Iranians are aiming to expand their power so that they can play a strong role in determining the rules of the game and the power-based hierarchy in the region, the Saudis are aiming primarily to stop them from expanding their power. While the Iranians aim to empower Shia factions in Lebanon and other countries, the Saudis aim to empower Sunnis with the goal of offsetting the Shia ‘Axis of Resistance’ and increasing the relative power of the US–Europe–Saudi axis instead.

Furthermore, the Saudi strategy has not been working effectively in recent years. Even when they make progress in controlling the internal power structures of the Lebanese state, they have been unable to counteract the activities of Iran-aligned groups conducting external, regionally focused operations. The Saudis have often found that as soon as the flow of resources stops, those who have aligned themselves with the Saudis in the recent past will generally pivot in order to best serve their own interests. During the years of the Obama administration, the Saudi government also became increasingly concerned that the US would reach some sort of ‘separate peace’ with Iran through a compromise such as the JCPOA nuclear deal. Since the election of the more hard-line Trump to the US presidency in 2016, this has been less of a concern, but Mohammad bin Salman and other members of Saudi leadership will still need to continue adjusting their strategy if they wish to effectively counterbalance the increasing expansion of Iranian power in the region.

Lastly, the geostrategic value of Lebanon is anchored in two vital factors. The first pillar is based on Hezbollah’s ability to acquire more robust deterrence power vis-à-vis Israel. The second consists essentially of the Assad regime’s future prospects and the protection of the Syrian territorial unity. Iran’s strategy for the consolidation of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ depends ultimately on these two factors. Saudi diplomatic efforts will be directed towards constantly opposing the Iranian expansion by pressuring and sanctioning Tehran in association with their traditional Western allies. One fundamental question will remain about the future of the rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh: will Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy doctrine be effective this time, or will it fail as it has since the 1980s? While the puzzle remains unsolved for now, Lebanon endures as an irreplaceable arena for Tehran’s and Riyadh’s foreign policy strategies to play out against one another.

Notes

1 H. Baumann, Citizen Hariri: Lebanon’s Neoliberal Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press; 2016).
2 This made intuitive sense as a strategic path for the Saudis to follow due to the nature of the consociational power-sharing arrangement provided for in the post-civil war Lebanese agreement. Under this arrangement, the prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim, and their cabinet appointments often fall along sectarian lines.
3 I. Salamey, The Government and Politics of Lebanon (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014).
4 A. Saad, ‘Challenging the Sponsor-Proxy Model: The Iran–Hizbullah Relationship’, Global Discourse, 9:4 (2019), 627–650.
5 S. Mabon, ‘Muting the Trumpets of Sabotage: Saudi Arabia, the US and the Quest to Securitize Iran’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 45:5 (2018), 742–759.
6 B. F. Salloukh, ‘The Syrian War: Spillover Effects on Lebanon’, Middle East Policy, 24:1 (2017), 62–78.
7 B. F. Salloukh and R. A. Verheij, ‘Transforming Power Sharing: From Corporate to Hybrid Consociation in Postwar Lebanon’, Middle East Law and Governance, 9:2 (2017), 147–173.
8 B. F. Salloukh, ‘Taif and the Lebanese State: The Political Economy of a Very Sectarian Public Sector’, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 25:1 (2019), 43–60.
9 Ibid.
10 C. Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
11 J. Bahout, Sectarianism in Lebanon and Syria: The Dynamics of Mutual Spill-Over, Peace Brief 159 (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2013).
12 Salloukh, ‘The Syrian War’.
13 M. Semo, ‘Macron en visite surprise à Riyad pour tenter d’apaiser les tensions regionals’, Le Monde, 11 October 2017, https://bit.ly/36A9JcR (accessed 1 May 2021).
14 G. Azar, ‘Breakdown of Lebanon’s New Parliament’, An-Nahar, 8 May 2018, www.annahar.com/english/article/801537-breakdown-of-lebanons-upcoming-parliament (accessed 10 May 2021).
15 ‘Salem Zahran: It Is Not Only Saudi Arabia That Does Not Want Hariri in the Political Scene, but the Americans As Well’ [in Arabic], 25 January 2021, www.salemzahran.com/home/interviewsdet/NDg2 (accessed 12 May 2021).
16 S. Akbarzadeh, ‘Iran and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Ideology and Realpolitik in Iranian Foreign Policy’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 69:1 (2015), 88–103.
17 S. Mabon and E. Wastnidge, ‘Transnational Religious Networks and Geopolitics in the Muslim World’, Global Discourse, 9:4 (2019), 593–603.
18 Saad, ‘Challenging the Sponsor-Proxy Model’.
19 Staff Writer, ‘Samir Geagea: Lebanon Cannot Be Effective as long as Hezbollah Is Armed’, Al Arabiya, 28 April 2019, https://bit.ly/3x6wZdp (accessed 20 May 2021).
20 P. Mohseni and H. Kalout, ‘Iran’s Axis of Resistance Rises’, Foreign Affairs, 24 January 2017, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2017–01–24/irans-axis-resistance-rises (accessed 13 May 2021); H. Kalout, ‘A Sucesão de eventos que atormentam a história recente do Líbano’, Época, 7 August 2020, http://glo.bo/3qP4n4i (accessed 2 May 2021).
21 C. Saunders, ‘Iran Military Power Report Statement’, U.S. Department of Defense, 19 November 2019, https://bit.ly/3iRymnU (accessed 16 May 2021).
22 Mabon, ‘Muting the Trumpets of Sabotage’.
23 S. Nakhoul and T. Perry, ‘Lebanon’s Aoun Wins Presidency to End Two Year Political Vacuum’, Reuters, 31 October 2016, https://reut.rs/3Lwv4mj (accessed 20 May 2021).
24 Mohseni and Kalout, ‘Iran’s Axis of Resistance Rises’.
25 R. Fisk, Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002).
26 J. Alagha, ‘The Shifts in Hizbullah’s Ideology: Religious Ideology, Political Ideology and Political Program’ (PhD diss., University of Leiden, 2006).
27 The Amal Movement is the acronym of Afwaj al-Muqawama al-Lubnaniyya (Lebanese Resistance Regiments). Additionally, the word ‘amal’ means ‘hope’ in Arabic. Amal was founded in 1974 by a religious and political leader, Imam Musa al-Sadr, who was seen as an important emerging voice of the Shiite Muslim population in the 1960s and 1970s.
28 E. Wastnidge, ‘Iran and Syria: An Enduring Axis’, Middle East Policy, 24:2 (2017), 148–159.
29 The Taif Agreement was mediated by the Saudis in the city of Taif, forging a new governmental arrangement between the political factions in Lebanon. The accords are celebrated as a new act of national reconciliation.
30 G. Abdallah, ‘Lebanon’s Political System: An Analysis of the Taif Accord’ (PhD diss., University of Houston, 2003).
31 Salloukh and Verheij, ‘Transforming Power Sharing’; B. F. Salloukh, ‘Taif and the Lebanese State: The Political Economy of a Very Sectarian Public Sector’, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 25:1 (2019), 43–60.
32 The Secretary General of Hezbollah from 1991 to 1992, al-Musawi was killed by Israeli forces in February 1992.
33 The current Secretary General of Hezbollah since 1992, Nasrallah is considered one of the most influential figures in Middle Eastern politics and the transformation of Hezbollah into social, political, and military camps is attributed largely to him.
34 In this period, a large part of the Lebanese political spectrum recognised the group as a legitimate movement, and its legality in the regional playing field was not contested. This dynamic was altered somewhat by the 2006 conflict with Israel and the 2011 beginning of Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war.
35 ‘Abd al-Ilah Balqaziz and Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-‘Arabiyya, Hizb Allah min al-tahrir ila al-rad‘, 1982–2006: Nuskha muwassa‘a li-kitāb al-muqawama wa-tahrir janub Lubnan, 1st ed. (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-‘Arabiyya, 2006).
36 D. Sobelman, ‘Hizbollah from Terror to Resistance: Towards a National Defense Strategy’, in C. Jones and S. Catignani (eds), Israel and Hizbollah: An Asymmetric Conflict in Historical and Comparative Perspective (London: Routledge; 2010), pp. 49–66.
37 Ibid.
38 D. Russell and N. Shehadi, ‘Power Sharing and National Reconciliation: The Case of Lebanon’, in I. O’Flynn and D. Russell (eds), Power Sharing: New Challenges for Divided Societies (London and New York: Pluto Press, 2005), pp. 138–152.
39 Exclusive interview conducted with the President of the Syrian Arab Republic Bashar al-Assad with the American TV network NBC, 13 July 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=45odEv_1DAY (accessed 20 May 2021).
40 Saad, ‘Challenging the Sponsor-Proxy Model’.
41 W. Phares, ‘The Nasrallah Speech: Hezbollah Ruled, the West Is Fooled’, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 1 June 2008, https://bit.ly/3JX6muL (accessed 21 May 2021).
42 Ibid.
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Saudi Arabia and Iran

The struggle to shape the Middle East

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