Hassan Nasrallah: consulting Iran’s supreme leader

Part of the establishment

There are still those who look to Hezbollah and the opening of a second front to save the Gazan population from genocide. But the last thing Hezbollah wants is war with Israel, writes Yassamine Mather

Last week I wrote about repressive Arab states banning demonstrations and other protests in support of the Palestinian cause - and I had previously written about the reasons why we have not seen any sizeable pro-Palestine demonstrations in Tehran or other major Iranian cities, explaining some of the reasons behind the apathy of ordinary Iranians.1

Of course, we should not underestimate the fact that, despite the lack of any serious action by the Islamic Republic and the Lebanese Hezbollah (one of Iran’s allies in the ‘axis of resistance’) over the war in Gaza, there are many forces both in Israel, including the current government, but also US Republicans and maybe some Democrats, who are very keen to extend the war beyond the Lebanese border and thereby create a situation where Hezbollah gets involved as a combatant and by extension Iran too.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visiting Israeli posts in the north, commented that “we are now in a double battle” - he mentioned Iran and Lebanon, as well as Hamas. His minister of economy went further, saying that if Hezbollah opens up a second front in the war, Israel will wipe them off the face of the earth. Currently neither the US nor Iran’s Islamic Republic want such an escalation and the Biden administration has issued very clear, direct warnings to Iran’s leaders, compelling them to take a very passive attitude faced with an ongoing war and genocide in Gaza.

I want to make it clear that I am not in favour of another regional war that could lead to the kind of dire consequences such as we have heard: eg, wiping Lebanon off the face of the earth. But I am in favour of ruthlessly exposing the anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, pro-Palestine rhetoric that has come from the Islamic Republic over many decades. Not because masses of Iranians believed it, rather because there are too many Palestinians and naive leftists in the west who are misled by what is in actual fact cynical window dressing.

No wider war

Meanwhile, in Lebanon Hezbollah - the main alleged proxy of the Iranian regime in the region - is showing unprecedented conservatism. Yes, there have been skirmishes with Israeli forces, drone strikes, etc. However, after such incidents the leaders of Hezbollah take great care to claim that these are all simply Israeli attacks on Lebanon - nothing to do with Gaza. Looking at future elections and its position in the current coalition, Hezbollah’s main concern seems to be not losing support amongst voters.

Speeches by Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah repeat the usual slogans, but contain very little by way of concrete proposals or substance - disappointing many Palestinians, not just those in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla.

Political ties between Iran’s clergy and Lebanese Shias go back to the pre-1979 era, when Iranian clerics had close ties with Amal (‘Hope Movement’ in Arabic), a political party with historical roots in the Shia community. It was established in 1974 as the ‘Movement of the Deprived’ by, amongst others, Mostafa Chamran, an Iranian who later became a minister in the Tehran government.

Historically, parts of Lebanon contain very sizable Shia populations - eg, the south, the north and central Beqaa valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut - so it was inevitable that the coming to power of Shia clerics in Tehran following the 1979 revolution influenced political events in Lebanon. The new Iranian rulers and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provided funds and training to a Shia militia that adopted the name, ‘Hezbollah’, meaning ‘Party of God’.

Hezbollah’s most glorious moment came when it succeeded in actually defeating the Israeli army in a 2006 battle - probably the only occasion when that has happened to Israel. However, it should be pointed out that, contrary to western propaganda, Hezbollah was even then much more than just a militia. It was a political organisation with a vast network of volunteers and paid employees, involved in every aspect of social life particularly in southern Lebanon. From education to health, from food distribution to religious taxation, Hezbollah ran that part of the country. But now it has become a far more important political force, with a substantial presence in parliament and government.

In accordance with the 1943 agreement, Lebanon’s political power has been distributed among its primary religious sects: a Sunni Muslim holds the position of prime minister, a Maronite Christian serves as president, and a Shiite Muslim assumes the role of the speaker of parliament. Since the early 2000s Hezbollah has held a number of seats in parliament, as well as a minimum of two ministers in every government.

The pro-US Iranian diaspora likes to portray Hezbollah as an ultra-conservative Muslim group, forcing women to wear the long black Shia chador (body-covering veil). Reality is, however, very different. The organisation is extremely pragmatic and nowadays it has its serious aims and ambitions in terms of its own position within the Lebanese state. If you ever see photos or watch videos of election rallies held by Hezbollah in Beirut and other major Lebanese cities you will see that the party’s young women supporters are often unveiled - many wearing sleeveless, open-necked, yellow T shirts sporting the party’s slogan on them. They wear make-up and bear no resemblance to the black-clad conservative women of southern Lebanon.

And the western, liberal dress code is no coincidence: it reflects Hezbollah’s enthusiastic adherence to the Lebanese version of neoliberal economic policies, in terms of privatisation, accepting IMF loans, anti-worker legislation, cuts in social spending … (policies very similar to those followed elsewhere in the region). The Hezbollah of 2024 has wholeheartedly backed such policies. It is no longer the party of the young, radical clerics who supported the disinherited poor of the south. Nowadays the popular base of the party includes the growing Shia business and middle classes, whose main aim is to ensure Lebanon’s economic stability and therefore want to avoid regional conflict at all costs. They want to enrich themselves.

When you look at some of the southern suburbs of Beirut where Hezbollah is quite strong, you see many wealthy families taking part in the party’s activities. Some of this base has invested in leisure tourism and, as an integral part of the accepted party pragmatism, they definitely do not want Islamic ideas in the industries that they are involved in. Nowadays, professional organisations representing engineers, doctors, architects, etc, proudly announce their association with the party too.

In addition to this internal support there is also international backing from expatriates. An organisation called Friends of Shia Lebanon acts globally to collect financial support from wealthy Lebanese individuals who live abroad. Amongst the wealthiest are owners of major multinational companies with interests throughout the Middle East and Africa (for example, Car Care Center ERS, which has numerous international branches).

And Hezbollah is proud of these wealthy supporters. Ali Fayyad MP actually acknowledged this trend back in 2010, when he boasted that “Hezbollah is not a small party any more, It’s a whole society. It is the party of the poor people, yes, but at the same time there are a lot of businessmen in the party. We have a lot of rich people, some from the elite class”.2

Side of the state

Inevitably this has created conflict with sections of Hezbollah supporters in the south, but nothing too serious because many of them get the crumbs from the neoliberal economics. Amongst reported sources of discontent are the young volunteers returning from fighting in Syria who complain about the wealth gap between ordinary people and sons and daughters of Hezbollah officials, who like to display expensive cars, houses and clothes.

When it comes to protests and demonstrations against neoliberal economic policies, against the sectarian constitution, Hezbollah has been on the side of the Lebanese state. This stems directly from the organisation’s ideology: workers should not demand more than what is provided by the capitalists, who in turn have charitable obligations towards the poor. Class struggle is regarded as negative, as it tries to challenge and break apart the Umma (Muslim community).

Despite the riches of some, Lebanon’s economy has faced a number of major crises in recent years, notably 2020, following the huge chemical explosion and fire in the Port of Beirut which killed over 200 people and injured 7,000. The country’s unstable currency nosedived, external and fiscal deficits ballooned and there were colossal losses in the banking sector, leading to what is referred to as a ‘sudden stop’ - an abrupt reduction of capital inflow.

Hezbollah’s deep involvement in Lebanese capitalism makes it very conscious of the vulnerability of the country’s fragile economy, so, even if it did not have Iran’s constant advice to ‘refrain from major military involvement against Israel’, Nasrallah and other Hezbollah leaders are unlikely to endanger Lebanon’s economy by escalating the war in the region.

Those who praise Hezbollah or Iran’s Islamic Republic as beacons of hope for the region do a disservice not only to the Palestinian cause, but to the peoples of the region - not to mention the working class.

  1. See ‘Threats mask timid actions’ Weekly Worker January 4: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1472/threats-mask-timid-actions.↩︎

  2. www.thenational.ae/news/world/follow-the-money.↩︎