London, Asharq Al-Awsat – If the absence or presence of a person were capable of changing the course of the history of a political movement in a state, then the presence and disappearance of Sayyed Musa al Sadr, the founder of Amal movement, is a prime example.
In August 1978, Musa al Sadr’s disappearance six months prior to the eruption of the Iranian revolution was not the mere absenting of an individual but the loss of a mode of thought, perception and vision. Not only did al Sadr’s disappearance affect the course of Amal movement, which was drastically marginalized, and thus affected the fate of Lebanon; it also had an impact on the progress and outcome of the Iranian revolution. However, two years following the triumph of the revolution, the nationalists and liberalists of Iran were the ones who were marginalized after the conservative clerics took center stage.
The fact is there have always been links between the developments in Iran’s revolution and between the events that took place in Lebanon via Syria. Iran’s war with Iraq weakened the liberal and national trends in the former while the conservatives and clerics started to gain ground. They believed that the only way to protect the Islamic republic from the enemies was through exporting the revolution’s ideas and models and disseminating them throughout the region. The two ideal locations to begin this project were: Iraq and Lebanon.
During his years of exile, the leader of the Iranian revolution Ayatollah [Ruhollah] al Khomeini was in Najaf while his close contemporaries were active in Lebanon prior to the Iranian revolution in 1979. However, Iraq was not the easiest of targets to export the ideas of the revolution to by virtue of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime, which went to war with revolutionary Iran. This meant that Iran could not spread the ideas of its revolution simply because it lacked channels, institutions and activists who could operate internally. Furthermore, many sympathizers had left Iraq for Iran in hope of ousting Saddam one day.
At the time, Lebanon was the second candidate that was regarded a fertile ground upon which to sow the ideas of the revolution. The Mahroomeen movement (Movement of the Disinherited) led by Musa al Sadr had been established from the beginning under the slogan of putting an end to the suffering and deprivation that the Shia sect had been subjected to.
It only took a few years for Amal movement to become widely influential as a result of the social, religious and political institutions that it set up and by virtue of al Sadr’s magnetic charisma and his popularity in Lebanon, the Arab world, the region and on an international level. These traits made Musa al Sadr unrivalled as a leader in Lebanon’s Shia circles, however; it was these very same characteristics that elicited a lack of trust among Khomeini’s close associates who were against some of al Sadr’s actions, positions and decisions.
One such point of contention was when the Shia leader met with the Shah of Iran in the seventies to request the amnesty of 11 clerics who were on death row. Also, his close ties with the liberalist Freedom Movement of Iran (FMI) whose prominent figures and leaders had been active participants in the toppling of the Shah’s regime proved to be another point of disagreement. With the vanishing of Musa al Sadr, Amal movement found itself at a loss as to dealing with the post-revolutionary Iran and with its leader Khomeini. According to Lebanese intellectual Hani Fahs who was a mediator between post-revolutionary Iran and the Palestinian Fatah movement, “Musa al Sadr’s disappearance left the Shia Higher Council unsure of how to deal with the revolutionary Iran; it did not want to embark on an adventure and its relationship was not solid with Imam Khomeini,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat, “This was the reason behind the council’s insistence on seeking Sayyed [Abul-Qassim] al Khoei’s opinion with regards to the Iranian revolution (this was natural since he was a Shia marja’a (religious reference)), especially after al Khoei was subjected to harassment by the Iraqi regime which also forced him to receive Farah Diba. This made it seem as though al Khoei was opposed to the revolution and to Imam Khomeini and he was compelled to issue a statement in which he said that he had been against and was still opposed to the Shah’s regime.”
He added, “We recall how Sayyed al Khoei had welcomed Sayyed Khomeini upon his arrival to Najaf after the Shah’s regime complained that the Turkish state was unable to prevent Khomeini from resuming his activities against the Iranian regime. He also demanded Khomeini’s exile to Najaf so that he may be part of the Hawza and its academic activities, away from politics. Moreover, al Sadr left behind the Amal movement, which was supposed to be driven towards the revolution… and it was launched – except it was met with an obstruction that impeded its progress and complicated its relationship with Iran.”
Sayyed Ali al Amin, the Mufti of Tyre and Mount Amel, who was one of the key eyewitnesses during the transformation of the relationship between Amal movement and Iran told Asharq Al-Awsat that in these definitive years two essential factors shaped the relationship between Amal and post-revolutionary Iran in 1979; first was the frustration within Amal over the way in which Iran dealt with the disappearance of Musa al Sadr. Amal had expected Iran to exert efforts to save al Sadr and bring him back to Lebanon from Libya – but this did not happen. The second source of frustration was Iran’s support of Palestinian groups in Lebanon at Amal’s expense, which had been calling for extending sovereignty over the entire Lebanese territory through armed confrontations between the Palestinian factions and Amal movement.
Al Amin pointed out that although Amal was a Shia movement; it was of an Arab Shia affiliation and with time political and cultural differences started to emerge between it and the new Islamic regime in Tehran after some signs of the regime’s desire to export its revolution to Lebanon began to manifest. This is also when Iran realized that Amal was not the instrument required for the success of its project.
He continued: “After Khomeini’s rise to power in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in Iran, a relationship was established between the Lebanese Amal movement and the new regime in Iran. The main factor in this relationship was the emotive bond that was the outcome of religious and doctrinal ties shared by both parties, upon the consideration that Amal movement was founded by Imam Musa al Sadr based on principles of the general religious culture in areas that were predominantly inhabited by Shia. These Shia respected and followed the scholars and marja’ (religious references) of their religious heritage. Since Iran’s revolution was led by religious clerics and spearheaded by Imam Khomeini; it had supporters among the Shia sect in general, and in Amal movement specifically, all of whom believed that the revolution would be a stepping stone that could help them consolidate their position in the Lebanese regime and end the deprivation they were subjected to. It had only been a few months since Musa al Sadr’s disappearance and Amal movement had expected the new Iranian regime to support it in its ongoing conflict with the Palestinian factions and the left-wing Lebanese parties that were dominating over the south and various other Lebanese areas. Meanwhile, some groups that were affiliated to Iran and which were linked to its embassy in Beirut and the Levant began to raise the slogan of the Islamic republic of Lebanon.”
According to the Mufti of Tyre and Mount Amel, Amal movement rejected the aforementioned slogan and furthermore believed that it went against the cultural, political and religious beliefs in Lebanon all of which did not recognize the Iranian concept of ‘Wilayat-e-Faqih’ [Guardianship of the Jurist] and the religious authorities in Mount Amel and in Najaf, Iraq rejected it too. This is why Amal movement and the Lebanon’s Shia sect did not support the Iranian project. Iran realized that Amal movement, which was mainly comprised of political activists at the time not religious clerics, was not the appropriate tool for exporting the revolution out of Iran. As such, Iran began to set up a party whose members were religious clerics, and the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982 served to assist it. This was achieved through activists and clerics in al Hawza al Ilmiyah [religious seminary] in Najaf, including Sheikh Abbas al Musawi and Sheikh Sobhi al Tufeili who had left Amal to support a new party called Hezbollah. Not many of Amal movement’s affiliates were aware of these new manoeuvres, including Sheikh Ragheb Harb who found out in 1983 through al Tufeili, revealed al Amin.
Meanwhile Fahs told Asharq Al-Awsat that one of the factors that helped Iran replace Amal with Hezbollah was that it began to promote the notion that activists in Amal were not devout nor religiously committed. To this al Amin said, “Iran paved the way for this by religious mobilization among the clerical circles and in the religious seminaries and religious institutions that it had dominated over. It upheld that Amal was not legitimate since it was not connected to Wilayat-e-Faqih and they began to classify its followers and affiliates as believers, disbelievers and secularists while exercising a monopoly over the religious and legitimate dimension. Thus they abandoned Amal movement for a religious inclination and while the Shia Higher Council did not regulate this religious orientation and did not embrace the clerics, Iran backed them and thus they became the nucleus of what would later become Hezbollah.”
However, without the ‘Syrian passage’ it would not have been possible for Iran to transform Hezbollah from a simple idea into an autonomous political, military, financial and cultural entity. Abdel Halim Khaddam who served as foreign minister and vice president of Syria during Hafez al Assad’s term told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “an Iranian group oversaw the drafting of various plans and the training and preparing of Hezbollah and they were also trained by the Lebanese who had received training in Iran and Lebanon. There was an Iranian military force that came into Lebanon via Syria and a division that was based in Syria following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The Iranians participated in the training and preparing of Hezbollah and moreover, the latter derived its theoretical and practical basis from Iran and utilized them to found and develop the party. However, the leadership of Hezbollah managed through its own capabilities to disseminate its ideas in the Lebanese Shia circles and the Iranians benefited from their relationship with the Syrian regime, especially under former Syrian president Hafez al Assad. They continuously and persistently asked him to provide leeway to assist Hezbollah. For example, if the Iranians want to deploy weapons, around 20 phone calls and letters need to be exchanged over various different levels and President Hafez al Assad was responsive.”
In fact; it is not an exaggeration to say that all the projects between Hezbollah and Iran were launched through Damascus. When Iran wanted to support Hezbollah’s demand to found a television station; it did so through Damascus rather than directly. On this subject, Khaddam related, “There was an agreement between the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri and former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al Hariri, may his soul rest in peace, to grant a number of television station licenses, one for Hariri, Berri, LBC [Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation] and a state television channel. So they agreed about four or five channels but they also agreed to not grant Hezbollah a television channel. The Iranian president at the time, Hashemi Rafsanjani contacted President al Assad directly and requested a channel for Hezbollah and thus Syria asked the late Rafik Hariri to grant approval and licensing to Hezbollah and to facilitate matters for it… The founding of Al-Manar was one of the things that reinforced the independence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese arena.”
But setting up an ideology that Hezbollah and the ‘Syrian connection’ could be based upon was not enough; it is necessary to establish institutions to follow the new fledgling party. However, the idea behind these institutions was not only to provide financial, military and cultural support only but to also propagate ‘ideology’. Through these institutions, whether schools or economic or military entities or via television or newspapers, Hezbollah became the most influential party in Lebanon’s Shia circles. In addition to Al-Manar TV, other institutions played a major role in consolidating Hezbollah’s presence on a political, social, cultural and economic level.
Among such institutions is al Shaheed Foundation (the Martyrs’ Foundation), which is originally an Iranian organization that was established to support and assist the victims of the Iran-Iraq war. The Lebanese al Shaheed Foundation was founded upon the same principle as its counterpart in Iran and since its inception in 1982; al Shaheed has met the needs of over 3,000 Lebanese families of whom one or more members had been killed.
In July 2007, the US State Treasury imposed sanctions on the mother organization, the Iranian al Shaheed Foundation and its branches operating under ‘al Qard al Hassan’ (AQAH) and ‘Munazamit al Niya al Hosna al Khayriya’ (Goodwill Charitable Organization, GCO), the latter is affiliated to the former and was based in the United States. The US State Treasury froze their assets on the basis that they were part of Hezbollah’s network.
The GCO was primarily a fundraising bureau that was set up by al Shaheed Foundation in Dearborn, Michigan in the US. The US Treasury upheld that its sister organization AQAH was operating as a cover for the management of Hezbollah’s financial activities. According to US officials, AQAH is run by Ahmed al Shami who is a senior Hezbollah member who has served as a member of the party’s Shura Council and as the head of a number of institutions that the party dominates over.
Hussein Raslan who is in charge of the social relations aspect of al Shaheed Foundation told IslamOnline (IOL) in 2006 that, “the institution provides support for the families that have lost members during the latest Israeli attack on Lebanon [July 2006], including the sons of other sects.” He also stressed that the role of the state in this context was limited as opposed to the role that the foundation played.
Raslan affirmed that the organization epitomized the notion of self-sufficiency since it had its own schools, hospitals and financial and cultural institutions. He told IOL that the idea for the foundation originated with Khomeini, who provided the financing from Zakat (alms). Raslan said that the first Hezbollah school was established in Beirut in 1988 but that eventually the school was incorporated into the Imam al Mahdi Foundation in 2002. The flow of funds [from Iran], he said, enabled Hezbollah to establish a series of enterprises including those for food supply, gasoline and printing houses. Hezbollah schools in Lebanon, whether under Khomeini or al Mahdi Foundation, follow the Iranian curriculum.
He also said that they had thought about investing the funds that they were receiving and effectively started doing that in the ‘90s when they set up the aforementioned enterprises, in addition to hospitals. Raslan also explained that Jihad al Bina (Construction Jihad), along with al Shaheed, are two of Hezbollah’s most important institutions. On its website, Jihad al Bina states that it was founded “in the aftermath of the gross violations committed by the Zionist aggression in Lebanon in 1982 and as a result of the negative effects of the internal war” and that its primary objective is “to alleviate the hardships that the disadvantaged population and deprived families face, especially in areas that have been historically neglected, such Bekaa Valley and the south and north that now lack the bare necessities of life. Therefore it was critical to take a deliberate and calculated step to curb the dangers that stem from the aggravation of poverty and destitution.”
Al-Manar TV, Nour radio channel and ‘al Intiqad’ newspaper are all backed by Iran, in addition to hospitals where even the medical supplies are exported from Iran. Meanwhile on a social level, various institutions were named and based upon Iranian principles, such al Shaheed. Through the burgeoning party’s popularity and influence, such institutions started to become widely known on a political and economic level – however; most importantly, they had a strong presence culturally speaking.
Today in Lebanon, there are vast cultural discrepancies so that the end result is two different cultures. According to Sayyed Ali al Amin, the Mufti of Tyre and Mount Amel, “The struggle began between the new culture that was supported by Iran and its loyalists in the clerical circles and the figures in Amal movement and the Shia Higher Council,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat. “The latter were the ones that enjoyed the official decision-making capacity in religion and politics which is what led to differences in opinions, visions and direction. This later developed into an armed showdown through which many were killed in the name of religion; this happened when Syria was present in Lebanon and relations were good with Iran. Eventually, Hezbollah, Iran’s representative in Lebanon, became part of the religious and political decision-making process and through it; it was able to spread its influence gradually until it became the stronger partner within the Shia sect and the Lebanese regime. And thus, Amal and the Shia Higher Council retreated on a cultural level so that Hezbollah today practices hegemony over Lebanon’s religious culture, in addition to being the number-one political power among the Shia. Moreover, Hezbollah’s military capabilities within the resistance have enabled Iranian influence to expand and spread, particularly in the Shia-dominated areas such as the south and in the Bekaa Valley so that the Lebanese state has become largely absented from that region. This was the reason behind the price that Lebanese citizens and nation had to pay in the July 2006 war – a development that could recur as a result of the absenting of the Lebanese state. The situation also became further complicated when the constitutional institutions were disrupted and the presidency seat remained unoccupied for months on end. It is common knowledge that the culprit behind this disruption lies in the foreign external links that some parties in the Lebanese opposition have with Iran, which I believe is primarily responsible. Then it is followed by Syria, which benefits through Iran’s influence via Hezbollah.”
Thus the two conflicting cultural paradigms in Lebanon remain in strife and there is a multitude of issues that must be brought to the front and discussed so that they may reconcile their differences. However; the danger lies in the possibility of the minority continuing to grab hold of the control reigns.