Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas: Historical Background

Iran-Ideology and Strategy

Historically, fears and obsessive preoccupation with foreign interference, blended with impotence in the face of foreign inluence, have formed the basis of Iranian nationalism. Geography; the need to secure the country’s territorial integrity; competition with other empires (such as the Ottoman Empire); meddling in Iran’s internal afairs by Western/Eastern powers such as Russia, Britain, and the United States; geopolitics and “an acute awareness of the weight of history” have a special place in determining Iranian foreign policy. At the same time, the perception among most Iranians that Iran has been able to overcome outside pressures has allowed for the rise of an “arrogance of nonsubmission.” Ayatollah Khomeini’s celebrated phrase, “America cannot do anything” is a good example of this tendency.(7)

The drive toward regional hegemony has long been a feature of Iran, an old and territorially established civilization. In the 1970s, Mohammad Reza Shah’s long reign evidenced this tendency, when Iran tried to become the Gulf region’s main power and the pillar of the Western security system in the Middle East.(8)

In the first systematic Islamic denunciation of the West, Ale-Ahmad concluded that the key to progress was the liberation of Iranian culture from Western domination. Another lay leftist intellectual, Ali Shari’ati, claimed that Islam was superior to both liberalism and Communism and that democracy had failed because “it was snared by a crude capitalism, in which democracy proved as much a delusion as theocracy.”(9)

As an alternative to the monarchy, Ayatollah Khomeini proposed the establishment of an Islamic government based on the governance of the jurisprudent. He claimed that, in order to attain the unity and freedom of the Muslim peoples, they must overthrow the oppressive governments installed by the imperialists and bring into existence an Islamic government of justice that will serve the people.(10)

The Khomeinist doctrine views Islam and the Iranian revolution as one; idelity to the regime is tantamount to duty to Islam; anyone who opposes the principle of velayat-i faqih (rule of the religious leader) “will be taken care of by the Revolution”(11) ; an ofense against the regime must be punished, whether the ofender lives in Iran or abroad.(12) Attacking enemies of the regime, Muslim or non-Muslim, is a sacred task. All these themes became explicit with Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa (religious ruling) calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, a British writer living in Great Britain, for writing a book deemed anti-Islamic.

This Iranian outlook leads to a need to struggle against alien ideological and cultural inluences, especially those coming from the West. This in turn has led Tehran to adopt jihad (sacred war) against what it calls the “imperialist onslaught” of the United States-the “Great Satan”-and its allies. It requires also the destruction of Israel, “the Lesser Satan,” an unnatural creature of Britain and the United States implanted on sacred Arab and Muslim soil: “the state of the inidel Jews that humiliates Islam, the Qur’an, the government of Islam, and the nation of Islam.”(13)

According to Ehteshami, Iran’s post-1979 revolution posture has been afected by what he called “the geopolitics of Islam.” Tehran’s messianic Shi’ism of the early 1980s and its attempt to “export the revolution” posed a direct challenge to the regional status quo and the political integrity of Iran’s Arab neighbors and caused noticeable tensions in the country’s relations with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated, largely secular-led, Arab states.(14)

Support for a growing number of Shia and Sunni Islamist movements in the Middle East became a feature of Iranian foreign policy. Tehran has supported the Hizballah in Lebanon, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) in Algeria, the Turabi regime in Sudan, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the al-Nahda Party in Tunisia, and the Jihad group in Egypt. The support given to the Islamic Moro National Liberation Front movement in the Philippines in the 1980s and to the Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s are other good examples of this Iranian strategy.(15)

Virtually all governmental factions agree that the main goal of Iranian foreign policy is to spread its Islamic message to Muslims everywhere in the hopes they will carry out their own revolution. In this spirit, Ayatollah Khamenei once declared that “exporting the revolution is like glitter of the sun whose rays…brighten the entire world.” In addition, Iranian leaders consider their country an important power with legitimate interests to defend and expand. Although strategic interests are presented as subordinated to Islamic values, these represent the nationalistic facet of the Iranian regime.(16)

The government’s oicial position has been that the Iranian Revolution should serve only as a source of inspiration to its neighbors, that Iran has no intention of interfering in another country’s internal afairs.

But Iran’s actions have belied this claim. A revolutionary guard liberation movement charged to introduce Islamic “culture” to the rest of the world was organized as early as 1979(17). State-sponsored terrorism, both at home and abroad, has therefore been an integral element of the Islamic regime’s political arsenal from the outset.

Syria – Ideology and Strategy

“Syria’s foreign policy is rooted in both its Arab national identity and the frustration of the ambitions inherent in that identity.”(18) The country is religiously heterogeneous (Sunni Muslim majority, Christian and heterodox Islamic minorities-the Alawis, Druze, and Ismailis) but overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking. Syria saw itself as the “beating heart of Arabism.” Under French rule, parts of historic Syria were detached for the creation of separate “mandates” in Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan. National identity, therefore, tended to focus on “imagined communities”-Greater Syria, Islam, and above all, the “Arab nation.” he legitimacy of the establishment of the state of Israel in Palestine by “imperialism” was not accepted, and Syria became a pivotal element in all the struggles against Israel.

Ba’athism, the movement that saw its mission as unifying the Arab states, was born in Syria and is still the oicial ideology of the state today; but after several disappointments with unity experiments, Syrian ruling elites came to view pan-Arab uniication projects as unrealistic.(19)

By the late 1960s, Syrian irredentism was refocused on the struggle for Palestine, and Damascus became “the bastion of a war of liberation in Palestine and a pan-Arab revolution,” which in the end brought on the 1967 defeat and the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights. Syrian leaders claimed therefore that the Arab national interest coincided with Syria’s particular military-security needs.(20)

Syria’s relations with Jordan, the Palestinians, and above all, Lebanon were inluenced by what it considered its special rights and responsibilities over these territories.As Patrick Seale points out, Syria perceived its struggle with Israel over the Levant as a contest between “Greater Syria” and “Greater Israel.”(21)

The United States has been perceived as the main backer of Israel, yet also conceivably as a broker for a Syrian-Israeli settlement in which Syria would recover the Golan. Damascus traditionally sought to convince Washington that its interest in Middle East stability would be served by such a settlement, as Syria could be a factor for regional stability congruent with U.S. interests; conversely, if they were ignored, Syria would obstruct U.S. initiatives. Thus,
Hafez al-Asad foiled several U.S. attempts to engineer separate peace treaties between Israel and Lebanon and Jordan that excluded Syria.(22)

Hizballah – Ideology and Strategy

The foundations of Hizballah were laid before the Iranian revolution, in the ties that bound the Shia ulama (religious scholars) of Iran and Lebanon who schooled together in the Shia theological academies in Iraq, especially in the holy city of Najaf. During the late 1950s and 1960s, these academies became active in formulating an Islamic response to Arab nationalism and secularism.(23)

Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah was a product of Najaf’s mix of scholasticism and radicalism. He went to Lebanon in 1966 and opened a husayniyah (a center of Islamic activism) in Beirut. In the 1970s, Iraqi authorities expelled about a hundred Lebanese theology students as part of a crackdown on Shia activism in the shrine cities. They became disciples of Fadlallah and later formed the core of Hizballah.(24)

Members of Iran’s Islamic opposition who found refuge in war-torn Lebanon during the 1970s were “adopted” and provided with training by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Graduates of the Palestinian camps included Muhammad Montazeri, the son of a leading opposition cleric and future founder of the Liberation Movements Department of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards; and Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, future Iranian ambassador to Syria.(25)

Muhammad Montazeri made the first, failed, attempt in 1979 to send six hundred Iranian volunteers to Lebanon, where they proposed to launch a jihad against Israel. An efective partnership between Lebanon’s Shiites and Iran began only in 1982, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Syria permitted Iran to send about a thousand Revolutionary Guards to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, where they seized a Lebanese army barracks and turned it into their operational base.(26)

The Iranian force, consisting of both military and religious instructors, recruited militants of Islamic Amal, a breakaway faction of the Amal movement, which had become more secularized under the leadership of Nabih Berri, and a number of young, militant Lebanese clerics ailiated with the Lebanese branch of al-Da’wa, a radical Iraqi Shiite fundamentalist group.(27) The nucleus of Hizballah’s leadership embraced Khomeini’s concept of the just jurisconsult (al-wali al-faqih), the ideological basis for clerical rule, enshrined in Iran’s 1979 constitution.(28)

Iran’s ambassador to Damascus, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, established a council to govern the new movement. The council included the Iranian ambassador, Lebanese ulama, and security strongmen responsible for secret operations and the movement’s militia.(29)

Hizballah formulated its doctrine in a programmatic document of February 1985, an “Open Letter” addressed to “the Downtrodden in Lebanon and in the World,” which bears a strong “made-in-Tehran” coloration.(30) It emphasizes that the 1979 revolution in Iran served as an inspiration to action “capable, with God’s help, of breaking the iron and oppression of tyrannical regimes.” The leadership of Hizballah pledged loyalty to Khomeini and to the goal of establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon.(31)

The letter set four objectives for the movement: the termination of all American [and French] inluence in Lebanon; Israel’s complete departure from Lebanon “as a prelude to its final obliteration,” submission of the Lebanese Phalangists to “just rule” and trial for their “crimes”; and granting the people “the right to choose their own system of government, keeping in mind that we do not hide our commitment to the rule of Islam.”(32) But, if the Lebanese choose freely, they will only choose Islam.(33)

Hizballah, like Iran, regards the United States as the “Great Satan,” in contrast to other Western enemy states, which are considered merely “evil.” According to its Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, “the main source of evil in this world, the main source of terrorism in this world, the central threat to international peace and to the economic development of this world, the main threat to the environment of this world, the main source of…killing and turmoil, and civil wars and regional wars in this world is the United States of America.”(34) The French were also singled out for attack, largely because of their long-standing sympathy for the Maronite community in Lebanon and for their arms sales to Iraq.

According to Sheikh Naim Qassem, Nasrallah’s deputy, there is also a “cultural conlict between [Hizballah] and the West.”(35) In light of these views, Hizballah’s mission is to take an active role, both overtly and clandestinely, in a conlict that extends far beyond Lebanon. During the 1980s, the concrete expression of this worldview was a long series of terrorist acts against Western targets inside Lebanon and abroad.(36)

For Hizballah, Israel stands out as the greatest perpetrator of crimes against the oppressed and the ‘greatest evil’ (as-shar almutlaq) to such an extent that they have vowed never to reconcile themselves to Israel’s existence; the ultimate objective is to destroy Israel and to liberate Palestine: “Israel’s final departure from Lebanon is a prelude to its inal obliteration from existence and the liberation of venerable Jerusalem from the talons of occupation.” This explains the close operational links between Hizballah and the rejectionist Palestinian groups that have opposed the mainstream PLO’s peacemaking with Israel.(37)

In Hizballah’s view, military, but also political and social resistance is an everyday mission and a responsibility for every Shiite. Moreover, resistance is a religious duty (fard shar’i). According to Hizballah, the power of resistance is that it is a righteous combat, supported by God, that inevitably leads to victory.(38)

From the outset, Hizballah conducted its struggle on three levels: open, semi-clandestine, and clandestine. Fadlallah and the ulama openly preached the message of resistance to Islam’s enemies and fealty to Khomeini in mosques and husayniyah. he Revolutionary Guards trained the semi-clandestine Islamic Resistance, a militia-like formation that attacked Israeli forces in south Lebanon. he Organization of the Islamic Jihad, the clandestine branch of the movement, operated against Western targets. It was led by Imad Mughniyya, a shadowy Shiite igure from south Lebanon and a veteran of Palestinian service, who became famous during the 1980s.(39)

As to the strategic weapon used by Hizballah since its inception, suicide bombings, Qassem described it in religious/philosophical terms:

It is no secret that the materialistic West, and the atheists in general, and all those who see that the power of Islam is on the rise, and that it is gaining…take a negative position and exert pressure, in order to make the believers abandon the culture of martyrdom….They know that if we competed with them according to the rules of this world, they would overcome us, because they are more materialistic than us….But if they compete with us on the issue of faith, we will overcome them, because the competitive power of faith is greater, stronger, and more inluential….hey call martyrdom ‘death,’ in order to make us renounce martyrdom….Martyrdom is valuable, sacred, respectable, and great…it is death for the sake of Allah, and in defense of what is just.(40)


7. Ehteshami, Anoushiravan, “The Foreign Policy of Iran,” in Raymond Hinnebusch and Anoushiravan Ehteshami (eds.) he Foreign Policies of Middle East States (Boulder, London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002), pp. 284-285. Ehteshimi and Hinnebusch are Middle Eastern scholars who have written widely on the history of modern Iran and Syria; they are widely cited in this paper.

8. Ibid, p. 286.

9. Jalal Ale-Ahmad’s major work Gharbzadegi (Westoxication) was published in 1962. See Mansoor Moaddel, “he Social Bases and Discursive Context of the Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism: he Cases of Iran and Syria,” Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 66, No. 3. August 1996, 330-355, p 12.

10. Ibid., p. 13.

11. Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson, Hasan Khomein, speech on the ninth anniversary of Khomeini’s death, Iranian television, June 4, 1998.

12. Menashri, David, Iran: bein Islam Umaarav (Tel-Aviv: Misrad Habitahon-Hotzaa Laor, 1996) in Hebrew, p. 146.

13. Khomeini in a speech given at Najaf, Feb. 19, 1978, cited by Amnon Nezer in Skira Hodshit (Tel Aviv), in Hebrew, Mar. 1998, p. 28.

14. Ehteshami, “The Foreign Policy of Iran,” p. 286

15. Ibid., pp.287-288.

16. Etalla’at, Apr. 9, 1988. Cited from Haggay Ram, “Exporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution: Steering a Path between Pan-Islam and Nationalism,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 3 (1997), p. 11.

17. Sciolino, Elaine, “Iran’s Durable Revolution,” Foreign Afairs, Vol. 61, No. 4, Spring 1983, p. 909.

18. Hinnebusch, Raymond, “The Foreign Policy of Syria,” in Raymond Hinnebusch and Anoushiravan Ehteshami (eds.) he Foreign Policies of Middle East States (Boulder, London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002), pp. 141-142.

19. Ibid., p. 142

20. Ibid., p. 143

21. Seale, Patrick, al-Asad: he Struggle for the Middle East, Berkeley (University of Califonia Press, 1988), pp. 349-350.

22. Hinnebusch, Raymond, “Defying the Hegemon: Syria and the Iraq War,” Institute of Middle East, Central Asia and Caucasus Studies (MECACS), University of St. Andrews, lecture given at the European Consortium on Political Research conference, Budapest, September 2005, p. 3.

23. Kramer, Martin, “Hizbullah in Lebanon,” Kramer’s website, at http://www.geocities.com/ martinkramerorg/Hizbullah.htm.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. See Norton, Augustus Richard, “Hizballah of Lebanon: Extremist Ideals vs. Mundane Politics,” Council on Foreign Relations, New York, 1999, pp. 8-9. Amal had been founded by the Iran-born cleric Imam Musa al-Sadr in the early 1970s as a militia adjunct to the Harakat al-Mahrumin (the Movement of the Deprived), a Shia populist reform movement. Amal enjoyed an impressive resurgence following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1978, the enigmatic disappearance of al-Sadr during a trip to Libya in the same year, and the historic Iranian revolution of 1978-79, which provided an example for action. Amal challenged the oppressive and often brutal domination of the Palestinian guerrillas, who brought southern Lebanon into the crossire with Israel.

28. Gambill, Gary C. and Abdelnour, K. Ziad, “Hezbollah: Between Tehran and Damascus,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin (MEIB), Vol. 4 No. 2, February 2002, at http://www.meib.org/articles/0202_l1.htm.

29. Kramer, “Hizbullah in Lebanon.”

30. See the document at International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) website, at http://www.ict.org.il/apage/printv/8013.php. The letter was issued in a moment of real exaltation. Hizballah had inlicted a chain of humiliations upon the United States: the departure of the American marines from Lebanon, the foiling of the U.S.-brokered May 17, 1983 agreement between Lebanon and Israel, the kidnapping of dozens of western hostages. Equally impressive was the success of the Islamic Resistance (al-muqawamah al-islamiyya) in forcing an
Israeli withdrawal from most of Lebanese territory to a self-declared “security zone.” See Norton, “Hizballah of Lebanon: Extremist Ideals vs. Mundane Politics,” p.12.


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