The Iranian Roots of Hizbullah
By: Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli *

"Iran is the only country that does not interfere in Lebanon." Mahmoud Ahamdinejad [1]

Ahmadinejad's absurd statement coincided ironically with the publication in the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat of an extensive interview with Mohammad Hassan Akhteri, who has recently completed a total of 14 years as Iran's ambassador to Syria. By his own admission, Akhteri was the most senior Iranian liaison official with Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, and the architect of the special relationship between Iran and Syria. Akhteri was also the founder in Damascus of the Palestinian-Iranian Friendship Society.

In the interview, published in two parts on May 14 and May 15, 2008, Akhteri distinguishes between the spiritual father (al-ab al-rouhi) of Hizbullah, the one who initiated the idea, and the "field father" (al-ab al-midani). Akhteri considers himself the latter, while his predecessor in Damascus, Ali Muhtashemi, was the former. [2]

Akhteri's Background and Proselytizing Activity
Akhteri was born in Qom in 1928, and came to diplomacy from his position as Friday preacher at the Samnan mosque, north of Tehran. He studied religious jurisprudence at a hawza (a Shi'ite religious center) in Qom. Concurrently with his role as ambassador to Damascus, Akhteri has served for the last four years as the head of the International Society of aal-al-beit, the Prophet Mohammad's descendents, who are viewed by the Shi'ite branch of Islam as the legitimate rulers of Islam. The Aal-al-beit Society is also engaged in spreading "Shi'ite Islamic consciousness," essentially a proselytizing organization which seeks converts to Shi'ite Islam.

Akhteri served two terms as ambassador to Damascus: the first, longer term from 1986 to 1997, and the second from 2005 to January 2008. But before serving as ambassador, he had accumulated a record as a proselytizer: He spent some time in Homs, Syria in 1969, and from there he went to Lebanon for two and a half years, through 1972, to carry out religious activities and tabligh (spreading of Islam).

Facing the First Crisis
Akhteri arrived in Syria in 1986, at a time of conflict between the Palestinians and the Shi'ite Movement - Amal - that was created by Imam Moussa al-Sadr in the 1960s as a social-service organization intended to improve the living conditions of the Shi'ite community in southern Lebanon, one of the poorest communities in the country. Al-Sadr, born in Iran and educated in Qom, also established the Shi'ite Supreme Islamic Council in 1969. Al-Sadr flew to Tripoli, Libya on August 25, 1978 and there he disappeared. His disappearance, six months prior to the success of the Iranian revolution, was a key factor in the marginalization of the Amal Movement, and the birth of Hizbullah.

The Splintering of Amal and the Creation of Hizbullah
The Islamic regime of Iran after the revolution regarded the Amal Movement with suspicion because it seemed insufficiently religious, and lacking the suitability or will to be an instrument of spreading the Iranian revolution. In addition, it was led by politicians, many of them were secular, rather than by clerics. In fact, the very name Amal (Hope) lacked religious ring. On its part, Amal was disenchanted with Iran because during its conflict with the Palestinians Iran supported the latter.

As a result, Iran encouraged elements from the Amal Movement to splinter and establish a religious party that would be more in tune with the concept of wilayat al-faqih, [the Rule of the Jurisprudent] introduced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual and political leader of the Islamic Republic. Once that party, Hizbullah, was established, Khomeini ordered elements of the Revolutionary Guards to go to Lebanon to train its young cadres.

The Iranian ambassador to Damascus from 1982-85, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, was quoted by Al-Sharq Al-Awsat as telling an Iranian newspaper that Hizbullah gained part of its battle experience through its participation in the war against Iraq. According to Mohtashemi, more than 100,000 young Lebanese received military training both in Lebanon and in Iran in groups of 300 fighters. Akhteri has also conceded that elements of Hizbullah fought in the war with Iraq "either within our ranks or by themselves."

Akhteri recalls that five planeloads of Revolutionary Guards and Basij (youth militia) landed in Damascus to stand with Hizbullah during the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, but Khomeini stopped any further dispatch of Iranian forces to Lebanon because of logistical problems. According to Akhteri, supplying a military contingency in Lebanon would have been difficult with the war raging between Iran and Iraq. The only other alternative would have been to go through Turkey, but Turkey was a member of NATO. Hence, the real alternative was to train Hizbullah's cadres in Lebanon itself.

Syria Allowed the Passage of Military Aid to Hizbullah
The arming of Hizbullah could not have been possible without the support of Syria. When Hizbullah was established, Syria was in control of Lebanon, and no one could come and go without the approval of the Syrian regime. In fact, Akhteri admits that throughout his "diplomatic" mission to Syria he coordinated his activities in Lebanon with Ghazi Kan'an, who was chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon from 1982-2001, and who became minister of interior in October 2003 and who in 2005 allegedly committed suicide. (Kan'an may have been involved in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. As the international investigation of the assassination was beginning to implicate the Syrian regime, Kan'an may have been silenced by a staged - unexplainable - suicide.)

In his interview with Al-Asharq Al-Awsat, Ambassador Akhteri stated with evident pride that Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas are the "legitimate children of the Iranian revolution," and that Iran has supported them financially, politically, and morally. There was coordination between Iran and each of these organizations, but Akhteri argues that any final decisions were taken by these groups themselves.

The Establishment of Al-Manar TV
To solidify its control over its supporters and to spread Shi'ite Islamic fervor, Hizbullah needed its own television station, but Lebanon was reluctant to approve an independent station for Hizbullah. According to former Syrian vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam, now living in exile in France, the Iranian president at the time, Hashemi Rafsanjani, called Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad to obtain a license for Al-Manar TV. Assad told then-Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri to grant the permit, and the permit was granted. The establishment of Al-Manar was one of the steps that, Akhteri stresses, "strengthened the independence of Hizbullah on the Lebanese political scene." [3]

Hizbullah's Social Institutions - Identical To Iran's
In addition to Al-Manar TV, Hizbullah was able, with Iran's financing, to establish a wide range of social, financial, and economic institutions that strengthened the loyalty of the Shi'ites in Lebanon to Iran. One of the significant financial arms of Hizbullah is the Shahid Foundation (Martyrs Foundation), an Iran-based organization established in 1982 in Iran to assist victims of the Iran-Iraq war. In 2007, the U.S. Treasury targeted "Iran-based Martyrs Foundation," including its U.S. branch, and the finance firm Al-Qardh al-Hassan (Good Deed Loan) as front organizations for Hizbullah. According to the Treasury, the Martyrs Foundation branches in Lebanon provided financial support to the families of killed or imprisoned Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad members, including suicide bombers in the Palestinian territories. Al-Qardh al-Hassan created the Goodwill Charitable Organization (munathamat al-niyya al-hasana al-khairiya) in Dearborn, Michigan as a fundraising office for the Martyrs Foundation.

According to the U.S. Treasury, Hizbullah used the Al-Qardh al-Hassan's financial arms as cover to manage its financial activity. Al-Qardh al-Hassan is run by Hussein al-Shami, a senior Hizbullah leader who has also served as a member of Hizbullah's Shura Council and as head of several Hizbullah-controlled organizations. [4]

Hussein Raslan, in charge of the social functions in the Martyrs Foundation, told Islamonline on August 13, 2006, that the idea for the Foundation originated with Khomeini, who provided the financing from zakat (alms contributed by Muslims). Raslan said that the first Hizbullah 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], Raslan said, enabled Hizbullah to establish a series of enterprises including those dealing with food supply, gasoline and printing houses. Hizbullah schools in Lebanon, either under Khomeini or al-Mahdi Foundations, follow the Iranian curriculum.

Hizbullah has also established a network of hospitals (dispensing Iranian-made medicines), banks, and cultural organizations. Finally, there are the Hizbullah police, who are responsible for maintaining "good manners" on the street - meaning, among other things, that women are always veiled in public. Money from Iran keeps this massive apparatus running.

Refusal to Pay for Electricity
One of the least-known facts about the dominance of Hizbullah in parts of Lebanon is the refusal of its members to pay their electric bills. Without the means to force them to do so, the Lebanese government is left with one of its largest budgetary problems - the growing subsidy the government has to pay to the national power company, Electricite du Liban.

The Shi'ization of Syria
The International Aal-Al-Beit Society, which operates under Iran's supreme leader, currently Ali Khamenei, and whose primary function is to spread Shi'ism (tashayu') in the rest of the Muslim world, took advantage of Iran's special relations with Syria in order to establish Shi'ite religious seminaries in Damascus. In fact, Damascus has now at least three hawzas (religious centers,) and is considered the third largest Shi'ite center in the world after Najaf and Qom. While Akhteri minimizes the proselytizing functions of the Aal Al-Beit society in Syria, there are concerns sounded in both Syria and the Arab world about the tashayu' effort - not only in Syria but in other countries, such as Egypt and Sudan.

This paper highlights two significant facts: first, Hizbullah was created and sustained by Iran. Iranian financial support has made it possible for this political organization to build a network of schools, hospitals, social welfare organizations and above all, military prowess. It now serves as an extension of Iran's strategic expansion into the Mediterranean.

Second, it is absolutely evident that Iran's extended arm into Lebanon would not have been possible without the collusion or approval of the Syrian regime. Syria is also the main conduit of arms from Iran to Hizbullah.

*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is the Editor of The MEMRI Economic Blog, This dispatch is based on a presentation made by the author at a panel on "The Iranization of Lebanon?" at the Potomac Institute on May 23, 2008.

[1] Press conference in Tehran, May 13, 2008.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 14 and May 15, 2008.

[3] Manal Lutfi, "The Limits of the State of Hizbullah," Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 20, 2009

[4], July 24, 2007.