Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going to Lebanon next week, where he intends to throw a stone at Israel across the border. While this set piece of information warfare, or propaganda, may seem more Japanese than Persian in its stark simplicity, it is best to think of it as a metaphor for Tehran’s regional strategy. For the last 30 years the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has been throwing the same stone at Israel, a stone called Hezbollah.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s general secretary, is credited by many Arabs and Westerners, including his adversaries, as among the greatest of all modern Arab statesmen and warriors, a man of probity and honor. Unlike other Arab leaders, he makes his threats against the Jewish state come true, sometimes even before the very eyes of his captivated audience, as when Hezbollah struck an Israeli boat in the first week of its summer 2006 war with Israel. “Look at the warship that has attacked Beirut, while it burns and sinks before your very eyes,” Nasrallah said on live television, as though he were directing a movie. This was one of his most famous information operations, but the fact is that everything Hezbollah does is part of its information-warfare strategy.
The Hezbollah T-shirts and lighters sold to tourists are Hezbollah media, and the coloring books that indoctrinate children into Nasrallah’s cult of personality are as much a part of Hezbollah’s information war as the party’s Al-Manar TV station. Even Hezbollah’s military operations are part of its larger information-warfare strategy. Kidnapping Israeli soldiers and firing missiles on civilian population centers are real military actions, but sinking a single ship is of little strategic value against a state with an army, lots of other boats, and even nuclear submarines. As an asymmetrical warrior, Nasrallah understands that even his most capable guerrilla units are no match for Israel, so he wages war against what he correctly perceives as the Jewish state’s center of gravity—public opinion. Hezbollah’s information operations are among the most sophisticated in the history of modern warfare because the Party of God is itself an information operation, designed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
What makes the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah seem complex is the fact that the Party of God is an information operation directed at several audiences at once. For instance, when Nasrallah says that Israel is like a spider’s web, flimsy and on the verge of being swept away by the winds of history, he is speaking not only to the Israelis. He is also addressing a Lebanese and a regional Sunni Arab audience and even an Iranian audience. And yet even with all the smoke and mirrors, the multiple audiences, and Nasrallah’s reputation, there is nothing ambiguous about the fact that Hezbollah is a projection of Iranian military power on the Eastern Mediterranean. There is nothing Lebanese about Hezbollah except the corporal host; its mind belongs to the Revolutionary Guard.
“During the 2006 war, we captured a number of Hezbollah documents, dealing with everything from religious ideology to military doctrine, the lion’s share of the important texts was clearly written by and for the IRGC and then translated into Arabic,” Shmuel Bar, a former Israeli intelligence officer, told me. “In human influence operations, Hezbollah’s modus operandi is the same as Iran’s.”
Bar, the founder of IntuView, an Israeli tech firm that does automated meaning-extraction from terrorist-related documents, likens it to how the Soviets produced material for their Arab clients, from Syria to Palestinian organizations. “We couldn’t understand the Arabic used to explain how to utilize a certain weapon, so we translated the Arabic into Russian, then went to our Russian linguists, who explained what it meant. The Iranians have done the same with Hezbollah. These documents were not authored by Hezbollah but translated from Farsi and prepared by the Iranians.”
The difference is that the Palestinians were notoriously difficult to control, with Yasser Arafat often playing the Soviets against his various Arab backers. “But unlike the Palestinian organizations of the 1970s and 1980s, which jockeyed back and forth between Syrian, Libyan, and Iraqi patrons,” Bar said, “Hassan Nasrallah cannot wake up one day and decide that he has chosen to side with someone else. Hezbollah is a surrogate; it has no existence without Iran.”
This interpretation of course runs counter to the standard account, which sees Hezbollah as a strictly Lebanese entity—a militia that may receive support from Iran, as well as Syria, but has steadily integrated itself into the fabric of Lebanese politics and society. Known as the Lebanonization thesis, this idea is itself a Hezbollah information operation, one whose target audience consists of the Western intelligentsia and, more dangerously, policymakers like the White House’s counterterrorism czar, John Brennan, who would like to find a way to engage Hezbollah but need a cover story that whitewashes Tehran’s real role. In this account, Hezbollah owes its existence less to Iran than to the Israeli occupation that brought it to life.
“The popular view of Hezbollah’s origins sees it as a reaction to Israel’s 1982 invasion, which presumably radicalized the Shi’a,” said Tony Badran, a Hezbollah specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (and a Tablet Magazine contributor). It’s not just left-wing academics hostile to Israel and war correspondents stage-managed by Hezbollah’s media handlers who believe that Israel’s 18-year occupation, from 1982 to 2000, gave rise to the party. Even Israel’s current defense minister, Ehud Barak, argues that, “It was our presence [in southern Lebanon] that created Hizbullah”—a rationalization for his decision as prime minister to withdraw from Lebanon that dovetails perfectly with this Hezbollah info op.
In reality, Hezbollah’s conception pre-dates the Israeli invasion, Badran said. “Hezbollah is the result of an inter-factional struggle between two strands of the Iranian regime, who fought bitterly between 1979 and 1981. The faction that prevailed, the Islamic Republic Party, dubbed itself the Party of God and created its namesake in Lebanon, which was a critical theater for projecting power, including against its domestic enemies in Iran.”
There were also Iran’s Arab enemies, especially Saudi Arabia, and hence one of the audiences for Hezbollah is the Arab political arena, both the ruling regimes and the masses, which the Iranians hoped to set against each other. By continuing the fight to liberate Jerusalem, Tehran had picked up the banner of Arab nationalism that the Sunni Arab regimes had tossed by the wayside. Here was another reason for the Arab masses to despise their cruel and now obviously cowardly rulers—and admire a Shia and Persian power they might otherwise fear and detest: As the Arabs got weaker, Iran got stronger, even in the eyes of the Arabs.
In other words, what seems like Hezbollah’s war with Israel is in reality the Iranian Republican Guard’s 30-year war against almost everyone else. The Zionist entity in this contrived scenario is a little like the Washington Generals to Hezbollah’s Harlem Globetrotters—except that here it’s the eternal rival who sets the tempo and the Globetrotters who can’t get a break. Nasrallah boasts that he understands his Israeli enemy well, that he has made a study of their society and mores. But the fact that he says he reads biographies of all of Israel’s military and political leaders is just an index of how much time he has on his hands, hiding underground since the end of the 2006 war in fear of an Israeli assassination attempt. Hezbollah is never going to tip the balance of power against Israel, but that was never Iran’s main project. Understanding the political terrain of their real target audiences, the Republican Guard sought to create an effect that was best elicited by making war against the Jewish state.
Lebanon was fertile ground for such an info op, where any arms taken up against Israel are considered sacred. The Palestinians set the precedent in the 1970s by using Lebanon to wage war against the Zionists, so Iran could do the same, through Hezbollah. And yet now the Lebanese are confounded that Hezbollah calls anyone who doesn’t stand entirely behind the resistance and all of its actions an Israeli agent. But this turn of events is the logical outcome of the information war that Iran has been waging against Lebanon, with Lebanese connivance, for three decades.
Consider that it took most Lebanese some five years to recognize that the organization that pioneered the car-bombing during the 1980s might have had a hand in assassinating former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri with a massive car bomb. Few Lebanese believed that the resistance would ever turn their arms against fellow Lebanese before Hezbollah killed their Sunni and Druze neighbors in the streets of Beirut in May 2008. Those arms were pure, the Lebanese thought, because they had been directed at Israel—even as few asked what it means to “resist” an enemy whose enmity you have brought upon yourself with acts of terror. Iran can destroy Lebanon anytime it likes, either by getting Israel to retaliate massively, or directly through Hezbollah.
If Hezbollah engineers the coup against the Lebanese government that many dread—there is speculation that this is why Ahmadinejad is coming to Lebanon—and finally takes total control of the country, the most significant audience for this info op is domestic—not Lebanese but Iranian. The Iranian foreign legion that runs Lebanon has no problems slaughtering their Lebanese countrymen in the streets of Beirut, and the Iranian people should understand that the Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s supreme leader, and its president will do at least as much in the streets of Tehran to hold on to power.