WASHINGTON – An expert on Islamist terrorism believes many people often misunderstand the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran, which has changed over time but it is now closer than ever.
Matthew Levitt, a former deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Treasury Department and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spoke about his latest book, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, recently at the New America Foundation.
Levitt said understanding the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran is critical to make sense of what the organization is doing at any particular time.
“The U.S. intelligence community now describes the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah as a strategic partnership with Iran as the primary partner,” he said. “We no longer describe this as a patron and proxy relationship.”
He said this partnership helps to explain, in part, why Hezbollah is engaged in more international terror today than at any time since the 1980s.
Levitt said Hezbollah is a multifaceted organization. It is a Shia Islam religious and social movement, Lebanon’s largest militia, a close ally of Iran, and a terrorist organization. The organization operates a legitimate political party in the Lebanese parliament. It is also the de facto overlord of south Lebanon, where it is in charge of a variety of social services.
Hezbollah and Iran both deny the existence of a Hezbollah terrorist component, but intelligence services worldwide have long known of the organization’s operations.
Hezbollah emerged in South Lebanon in the early 1980s as a consolidation of Shia militias pulled together by Iran. Its origins can be traced back to three attacks in Beirut over an 18-month period beginning in 1983. These attacks included bombings of U.S. Marine and French military barracks in Beirut, both of which were part of the multinational force of peacekeepers during the Lebanese Civil War. After these attacks, Hezbollah expanded to include targets abroad intended to exact revenge for actions threatening its own or Iran’s interests.
Over the past three decades, Hezbollah has transformed itself into a sophisticated international army of mercenaries. Although based in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s outreach and influence extend to every continent and continue to grow. Levitt said Hezbollah has a global footprint, spanning the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and even North America.
The organization rolled back its terrorist operations after 9/11 to avoid getting caught in the crosshairs of the war on terror and being compared to al-Qaeda. In the meantime, Hezbollah focused on logistics, procuring arms for its militants in southern Lebanon, and raising funds through criminal and other enterprises to support its network of mercenaries.
He said a wave of attacks marked the resurgence of Hezbollah’s terrorist apparatus. The February 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyah, the head of Hezbollah’s terrorist wing, led Iran and Hezbollah to reassess how they would proceed with a shadow war targeting Israeli, Jewish, and American interests worldwide.