Hezbollah’s Calculus after the Iran Nuclear Deal
January 19, 2016
Abstract: Lebanese Hezbollah operating in concert with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is crucial to the survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime. At the same time, Hezbollah is facing multi-front wars against Israel and an array of opponents both inside and outside of Lebanon. This article explores Hezbollah’s calculations and behavior after the Iran nuclear deal. While Hezbollah is overstretched and under stress, its leadership is still prepared for the next major military confrontation with Israel. This coming conflict and Hezbollah’s use of terrorism will be determined by Iranian hardliners and by Israel’s targeted actions against Hezbollah’s security operatives.
Sir Mark Allen, a former senior British MI6 officer, said at the outset of the Syrian civil war: “Understanding Syria and Lebanon is like playing three-dimensional chess underwater with all the pieces moving simultaneously.” This “many moving parts” analogy explains perfectly Hezbollah’s complex behavior. It fits with the closely embedded, patron relationship Hezbollah has maintained with Syria and Iran since its foundation in 1982. It also fits with the complexity of Hezbollah’s multi-front wars—propping up the Syrian regime through close cooperation with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), battling against Sunni jihadi groups in Lebanon and in Syria, and preparing for a major war against Israel. Simultaneously, Hezbollah’s terror architecture is closely intertwined with Ayatollah Khamenei and his agenda. Operationally, Hezbollah also functions closely with the IRGC-Qods Force and the Iranian intelligence service MOIS in the execution of terror.
Since 2012, Iran (with Hezbollah) and Israel have been locked in a shadowy intelligence war, which has led to a campaign of terror and reciprocal assassinations around the world. Some of Hezbollah’s most important operational cadres have been targeted by Israeli assassination efforts. These same operatives have been targeted by financial sanctions from Washington. At the same time, Hezbollah operatives have been arrested for plotting several terror attacks against Israeli targets. This article will examine how the recent nuclear deal with Iran has affected Hezbollah and its leadership’s calculations.
Hezbollah-Syria-Iran Axis in Syria
Hezbollah’s behavior can only be explained by understanding the three-decades-old and close-knit Syria-Iran-Hezbollah Axis of Resistance, which has been balanced through the convergence of shared regional and local interests. For Syria, Hezbollah’s military contribution alongside the IRGC has been decisive for the very survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Hezbollah’s efforts in and around Damascus, combined with recapture of the Qalamoun region and the M5 highway linking Damascus with the coastal region, have been crucial. Hezbollah’s military contribution has given it significant leverage over Syria and has augmented its freedom of movement.
For Iran, Hezbollah is the most successful example of its efforts to export the revolution abroad and allows it to participate in the Arab-Israeli conflict, using Hezbollah as military leverage and a pressure point against Israel. It also consolidates the resurgent Shiite axis, stretching from Tehran through Baghdad to Beirut. Iran provides extensive military equipment and financial support through a web of channels, from the IRGC and Iranian banks to parallel Iranian charitable institutions within Lebanon. Although Hezbollah makes semi-independent decisions, Iran’s influence over the decision-making processes can be seen by the fact that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, is Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative in Lebanon.
Over the last three decades, Hezbollah has worked in close concert with IRGC commanders to increase its guerrilla and warfighting capabilities in southern Lebanon. Recently Hezbollah operated with IRGC advisers and commanders to provide life support to the Syrian regime, a combined effort with other Shiite militias under the overall direction of the legendary IRGC head Qassem Suleimani. Since the 2006 Lebanon War, secret Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah have continued, and the group has allegedly amassed between 80,000 and 100,000 missiles and rockets, all pointing toward Israel. Many of Hezbollah’s rocket launchers are strategically placed in high-density population areas in an effort to ensure maximum civilian casualties if opponents attempt to destroy the rockets. Hezbollah has built a web of underground tunnels along the Lebanon-Israel border. There, tens of thousands of rockets are stored. Evidence also exists that Hezbollah is practicing for urban assaults against Israeli villages and towns.
Hezbollah’s Calculus in Syria
Hezbollah’s own involvement in Syria has been complex, costly, and controversial inside the movement. More than 1,000 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011, compared with 1,276 killed fighting the Israeli occupation over a 15-year period. As Iran has increased its commitment to preserving the al-Assad regime, it has left Hezbollah with little choice than to follow suit. Initially Hezbollah provided advisers and training to Syrian paramilitary forces, but ultimately was dragged into the conflict directly. The frequency of Hezbollah funerals sparked an internal debate about why it sent fighters to protect Syria when the focus should be to protect Lebanon from Israel. Some argued that Hezbollah was engaged in an endless war and that it distracted it from confronting its main enemy—Israel.
Hezbollah responded by justifying its involvement in Syria as a pre-emptive war to ensure that Hezbollah and Lebanon would not eventually fall victim to Sunni extremism. It was necessary, in this argument, to take the fight to Syria before Sunni extremism reached Lebanon. Hezbollah would do so by defending Shiite villages along the Syrian-Lebanese border and defend the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus. For Hezbollah though, its involvement in Syria presented both costs and benefits.
The military costs and rising levels of Hezbollah casualties, combined with demands for compensation from the families of so called martyrs, have placed a burden on Hezbollah’s finances. These were further strained when Iran was forced to reduce its support to Hezbollah because of the pressure from Western sanctions. Hezbollah has also lost experienced senior commanders and soldiers on the battlefield in Syria, forcing it to divert significant additional manpower and resources from southern Lebanon to Syria. Between 6,000 and 8,000 Hezbollah fighters are in Syria and Iraq, which is a large percentage of the group’s main fighting force, and it has between 30,000 and 50,000 fighters ready to be mobilized.
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has also led to retaliation in its strongholds in the southern suburbs of Beirut. A series of suicide bombings and assassinations by Sunni jihadi extremists have shattered Hezbollah’s reputation for security and its sense of invincibility. This new vulnerability has been reinforced by Israel’s targeted assassinations of Hezbollah operational figures in both Lebanon and Syria.
There have also been benefits from its involvement in Syria. Hezbollah’s military engagement in Qusayr, Qalamoun, and Arsal has strengthened its urban warfighting capabilities. It has also burnished Hezbollah’s image as the protector of Lebanon from the Sunni jihadi threat, especially when it operates alongside Syrian military forces directly in the battlefield. For younger Hezbollah recruits, the fighting in Syria has given them invaluable combat experience. Hezbollah has also expanded its operational theater against Israel, coupling southern Lebanon with the Golan Heights. This provides them with strategic depth in its confrontation with Israel. Hezbollah’s interlocking relationships with Syria and Iran have ensured that it is committed to the survival of the al-Assad regime. It has also allowed for newly forged links with a myriad of Shiite militias in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. There is even a small contingent of Hezbollah advisers working with Houthis in Yemen under the supervision of the IRGC.
Some argue that Hezbollah is overstretched as it continues to fight on multiple fronts and that it cannot afford to open a new front with Israel. Hezbollah is losing a significant number of fighters. Others point to the fact that Hezbollah has acquired warfighting skills and is intensifying preparations for the next conflict with Israel. Parallel to this, Hezbollah has created paralysis within Lebanese politics by blocking the election of a new president. Hezbollah is meanwhile maneuvering to present itself as a viable alternative government.
Hezbollah’s Position After the Iran Nuclear Deal
Starting in 2014, Iran had cut Hezbollah’s funding because of austerity policies, international sanctions, and the burden of heavy financial assistance to Syria combined with a backdrop of falling oil prices. Hezbollah’s financial problems were exacerbated by its continuing efforts in Syria. This has resulted in Hezbollah cutting back on social services, firing employees, and experiencing some problems with paying suppliers and officials their salaries on time. Even funding for its satellite station al-Manar has been scaled back. Compounding these financial difficulties have been allegations of corruption within Hezbollah that have hurt its reputation.
After sanctions on Iran were lifted in July 2015, Hezbollah’s financial difficulties were resolved. There was an influx of Iranian funding directly controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei, especially to underwrite Hezbollah’s military and security architecture in Lebanon and Syria. Khamenei’s vast financial empire Setad (also known as EIKO) and its subsidiaries will be free to trade thanks to the nuclear deal, giving hardliners more opportunities to fund Hezbollah and the IRGC. The deal strengthened Hezbollah’s position within Lebanon as the main political winner, effectively countering the pro-Saudi March 14 coalition. Hezbollah has been pushing new electoral legislation (al-Nissbya), which would give it a decisive political advantage. Even Sheikh Nasrallah is talking in terms of Hezbollah having regional influence. For Iran, the issue of the EU listing of Hezbollah as a terror organization, and its desired removal from this list, could be used as a potential bargaining chip as Iran opens up its markets to the West.
Some have argued that lifting the sanctions will inevitably increase Hezbollah’s aggressiveness at home and abroad. Others have argued that Hezbollah is preoccupied in Syria and less interested in jeopardizing its hard-won gains and stability in Lebanon or in going to war with Israel. Unlike IRGC-Qods Force, which seeks confrontation with Israel, Hezbollah appears to prefer a cold war with Israel in which conflict remains contained along pre-established lines of deterrence.
There are, however, fears that a deepening of the power struggle in Iran over the successor to Ayatollah Khamenei, combined with the Supreme Leader’s health concerns, could seriously jeopardize the nuclear deal. If Iranian moderates succeed in sidelining hardliners in the Assembly of Experts (which elects the Supreme Leader), it may push these hardliners into activating IRGC-Qods Force and Hezbollah on several fronts. If hardliners lose serious ground in Iran’s clerical hierarchy, it may result in terrorist attacks designed to goad Israel into activating another Hezbollah-Israel war or Hezbollah activating its vast rocket arsenal against Israel. War by proxy against Israel would galvanize the hardline Iranian revolutionary forces. It would divert moderate tendencies into a united posture against a common enemy.
All this depends both on the composition of the Assembly of Experts, which is decided by elections on February 26, and who ultimately succeeds Ayatollah Khamenei. Hardline candidates for Supreme Leader, who would push Iran toward more radical policies, include Mesbah Yazdi, Ahmad Khatami, and Mojtaba Khamenei. Hardliners are particularly opposed to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who proposes that the Assembly of Experts choose a council of leaders instead of a single ayatollah who serves for life.
Hezbollah’s agenda and behavior is not only determined by its relationship with Iranian hardliners and IRGC-Qods Force, but also pressures affecting both its financial operations and security procedures.
In parallel to lifting the sanctions on Iran, Washington has significantly tightened fund transfers directed toward Hezbollah. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has continued to impose targeted sanctions against key operational Hezbollah leaders. In July 2015, Mustafa Badr Al Din, Ibrahim Aqil, and Fu’ad Shukr were named for their roles in coordinating or participating in Hezbollah’s support for al-Assad’s government. These sanctions also target Hezbollah front companies and businessmen.
In July 2014, the U.S. Department of the Treasury targeted several electronic firms around the world, alleging that they were part of Hezbollah’s procurement network supplying dual-use technology for its unmanned aerial vehicles operating over the Lebanon-Israel border and in Syria. It has also targeted significant Hezbollah supply networks in West Africa.
Washington’s serious efforts to move against Hezbollah funding dates back to 2011 when it seized $150 million in assets from the Lebanese Canadian Bank. The U.S. Department of the Treasury charged that the bank “had transferred hundreds of millions to buy used cars, which were then shipped to Africa. Part of the cash was then sent to Lebanon via a Hezbollah-controlled money-laundering network and significant payments went to Hezbollah.” Since 2011, the U.S. government has accelerated its crackdown on Hezbollah funding through far-reaching money-laundering probes in Europe, North America, South America, and Africa.
Efforts in the United States to intensify financial pressure have continued every year since 2014 when the U.S. Congress passed the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act. The law punishes international financial institutions that knowingly engage in business with Hezbollah and its backers. It also specifically identifies the satellite and internet providers of its television station al-Manar. These measures have forced Hezbollah to avoid using Lebanese banks or financial institutions, relying instead on bulk cash smuggling through Syria. It has also led to al-Manar being dropped by Saudi-operated ArabSat, one of the main satellite operators in the Middle East. This move comes as Saudi Arabia has imposed sanctions against 12 Hezbollah leaders and businesses.
Since the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in 2008, Hezbollah has suffered several security setbacks. Israel succeeded in assassinating key operational leaders such as Hassan al-Laqqis, head of Hezbollah’s weapons technology and communications unit, and Jihad Mughniyeh, who was in charge of the Hezbollah’s Golan Heights unit. An IRGC-Qods Force general, Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, also died in the same incident together with five other Hezbollah leaders. Again in December 2015, Israel allegedly killed Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese militant who had served 30 years in prison for murder before he was swapped in a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah in 2008. Kuntar had replaced Jihad Mughniyeh as the head of Hezbollah’s Golan Heights unit. Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah vowed revenge on Israel: “It is our right to revenge [Kuntar’s] assassination, and we will pick the time, place, and manner to do so as we deem appropriate.” These security setbacks are a major concern to Hezbollah and Wafic Safa, its security chief, as it is clear that Israel has managed to penetrate the organization.
Hezbollah’s security problems extend to its External Security Organization (ESO). A number of operatives have been caught conducting reconnaissance missions and plotting attacks against Israeli targets abroad. It is suspected that Cyprus was a staging ground for a broader Hezbollah terror campaign within Europe. Just before Hezbollah’s terror attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, in July 2012, Cypriot authorities arrested Hezbollah operative Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, a dual Lebanese-Swedish citizen who had conducted surveillance on Israeli tourists. He confessed to having received weapons training from Hezbollah and to acting as a courier in Europe. Also in 2012, another Lebanese-Swede was arrested in Thailand on charges related to illegal possession of three tons of ammonium nitrate. A third case involves Hussein Bassam Abdallah, a dual Lebanese-Canadian citizen, who stockpiled 8.2 tons of ammonium nitrate in Cyprus and who was jailed for six years in 2015 for plotting terror attacks against Israeli or Jewish targets these cases show that Hezbollah operates simultaneously on multiple fronts and continues to plan terror operations, in concert with IRGC-Qods Force, principally against Israeli or Jewish targets abroad. Hezbollah and IRGC-Qods Force operate jointly in target selection and operative training. The Mughniyeh family, Mustafa Badreddine (indicted by the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon for the 2005 Rafiq Hariri assassination), and the Hamadi clan are all part-and-parcel of this close-knit operational circle.
Hezbollah’s calculus regarding the use of terrorism is complex, and factors in the dynamic trade-off between its position within Lebanon, its involvement in Syria, and its so-called red lines with Israel. Ultimately, decisions about terror and war are determined in concert with Ayatollah Khamenei and IRGC-Qods Force and whether the outcomes would be in alignment with Iranian agendas and overall interests. For now, Hezbollah will seek revenge but not war. It will, however, respond with terror operations against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, especially if senior Hezbollah operational figures are targeted by Israel. It is not a question of if, but when and where. There will be terrorist operations planned in response to the killing of Mughniyeh and Kuntar as Israel knows that Nasrallah always follows through on his threats.
A regional war between Israel and Hezbollah (and Iran) is brewing on the horizon. Hezbollah’s advanced warfighting capabilities and experience in supporting big offensives have given the organization the necessary confidence should a conflict with Israel be initiated. It will be far more serious than the 2006 war, with huge civilian casualties on both sides. This is part of Hezbollah’s calculus. It is determined by changing dynamics in the Syrian conflict and by strategic consultations with Ayatollah Khamenei and the IRGC. Iranian political rivalry between reformists and radicals determines Hezbollah adventurism and violent action. The situation with Hezbollah is also shaped by Israel’s pre-emptive targeting of Hezbollah military sites and high-value leaders and operatives. If either Hezbollah or Israel miscalculates and makes a bold targeted response, it may lead to a disastrous spiral of escalation on both sides. For now though, Hezbollah remains preoccupied with its military adventure in Syria.
Dr. Magnus Ranstorp is Research Director (CATS) at Swedish Defence University and author of one of the first books on Hezbollah. He was also part of several backchannels between Hezbollah and Israel over the prisoner exchange issue and Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
 Author’s personal conversation with Sir Mark Allen in Brussels in 2011.
 Magnus Ranstorp, Hizballah in Lebanon, Macmillan, London, 1996.
 For an excellent overview, see Matthew Levitt, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, Georgetown University Press, Washington D.C., 2013.
 Matthew Levitt, “Hizballah and the Qods Force in Iran’s Shadow War with the West,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy Studies, Policy Focus 123, January 2013.
 Marisa Sullivan, “Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Institute for the Study of War, April 2014.
 This is based on multiple sources on Hezbollah from Ranstorp, Nicholas Blanford, Antoine Saab, Ahmed Hamzeh, and others as well as interviews with senior Western intelligence officials and Israeli officials occurring over the last 25 years.
 Nicholas Noe, Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Verso Press, 2007.
 Daniel Byman and Bilal Y. Saab, Hezbollah in a Time of Transition, Brookings/Atlantic Council, November 2014.
 “Dangerous and destabilizing behavior of Hezbollah,” Letter from Amb. Prosor to UN Secretary General and UN Security Council, May 27, 2015.
 Nicholas Blanford, “Has Hezbollah built tunnels under the border with Israel?” Daily Star, September 15, 2014.
 Nicholas Blanford, Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel, Random House, 2011; Nicholas Blanford, “Hezbollah’s tactics support Israeli fear of Galilee attack,” Daily Star, June 7, 2014.
 Bassem Mroue, “A Hezbollah recruitinag drive comes amid losses, deeper involvement in Syria,” Associated Press, December 18, 2015.
 Eric Lob, “Is Hezbollah Confronting a Crisis of Popular Legitimacy?” Middle East Brief (Brandeis University, March 2014): p.2-3.
 “Ex-Hezbollah chief slams group’s Syria intervention,” Jerusalem Post, June 9, 2013.
 “The Reasons Behind Hezbollah’s Decision to Fight in Syria,” Al-Monitor, April 11, 2013.
 Matthew Levitt and Aaron Y. Zelin, “Hizb Allah’s Gambit in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:8 (August 2013): p. 14.
 Eric Cortellessa, “Senior IDF officer: Hezbollah is in ‘strategic distress,’” Times of Israel, June 29, 2015.
 Erika Holmquist, ISIS and Hezbollah: Conduits of Instability, FOI-R-4058-SE, 2015.
 For an excellent overview, see Phillip Smyth, “The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy Studies, Policy Focus 138, 2015.
 Erika Solomon, “Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Yemen’s Houthis open up on links,” Financial Times, May 8, 2015.
 See, for example, Basem Shabb, “The Syrian Conflict and the Ascendancy of the Lebanese Armed Forces,” Middle East Institute, November 25, 2015.
 For example, see: Shaul Shay, “The third Lebanon war scenario,” Jerusalem Post, June 17, 2015.
 Antoine Ghattas Saab, “Hezbollah cutting costs as Iranian aid dries up,” Daily Star, May 15, 2014.
 Nicholas Blanford, “How oil price slump is putting a squeeze on Hezbollah, Iran’s Shiite ally,” Christian Science Monitor, January 4, 2015.
 Alex Rowell, “Hezbollah’s fading finances back in spotlight,” NOW, March 19, 2015.
 For details of EIKO (Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order), see Jonathan Schanzer, “Iran’s Power Projection Capability,” Hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Subcommittee on National Security, November 5, 2015; Steve Stecklow, Babak Dehghanpisheh, and Yeganeh Torbati, “Khamenei controls massive financial empire built on property seizures,” Reuters, November 11, 2013.
 Daniel Sobelman, “A Shifting Center of Gravity across Israel’s Northern Border,” in Tipping the Balance? Implications of the Iran Nuclear Deal on Israeli Security, Harvard’s Belfer Center, December 2015.
 Matthew Levitt, “Major Beneficiaries of the Iran Deal: IRGC and Hezbollah,” Testimony submitted to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, September 17, 2015.
 Antoun Issa, “Israel-Hezbollah War Unlikely…for Now,” Huffington Post, March 21, 2015.
 Muhammad Sahimi, “Who Will Succeed Ayatollah Khameini?” Huffington Post, January 4, 2016.
 Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Khomeini’s reformist grandson follows the ayatollah’s footstep into politics,” Guardian, December 18, 2015.
 Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader says Iran will not abandon support after nuclear deal,” Reuters, July 25, 2015.
 Jay Solomon, “U.S. Sanctions Companies for Ties to Hezbollah,” Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2014.
 Devlin Barrett, “U.S. Intensifies Bid to Defund Hezbollah,” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2015.
 “US sanctions against Hezbollah unlikely to have impact: experts,” Albawada, December 21, 2015.
 “Arab satellite pulls plug on Hezbollah TV,” BBC Monitoring, December 11, 2015.
 “Saudi Arabia imposes sanctions on senior Hezbollah figures,” Al-Arabiya, November 26, 2015.
 Ronen Bergman, “Israel’s Kill List,” Foreign Policy, December 5, 2013.
 “How will Nasrallah retaliate for death of Hezbollah leader in Syria,” Al-Monitor, December 21, 2015.
 Sarah Aarthun, Yousuf Basil, and Oren Liebermann, “Hezbollah vows revenge on Israel after death of senior militant Samir Kuntar,” CNN, December 21, 2015.
 Nicholas Kulish, “Hezbollah Courier Found Guilty in Plot to Attack Israeli Tourists in Cyprus,” New York Times, March 21, 2013.
 “Swedish-Lebanese man accused of Hezbollah ties jailed by Thai court for bomb materials,” Jerusalem Post, September 18, 2013.
 “Lebanese man jailed in Cyprus ammonium ‘plot’ against Israelis,” Reuters, June 29, 2015
 Information based on interviews with ICTY officials, Israeli officials, and Western intelligence officials.
 For example, see Riad Kahwaji, “Hezbollah’s capabilities pose serious problem to Israel,” Arab Weekly, October 7, 2015.