Hezbollah’s Role as Iran’s Proxy and What It Means for the US

Hezbollah’s Role as Iran’s Proxy and What It Means for the US and the Middle East

After the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces mobilized not only to take on Hamas in Gaza, but to set up a strong defense along the country’s northern border should Hezbollah decide that the time is ripe for an attack. 

Hezbollah has its main base around the Israel-Lebanon border, as well as a 40-year-long history of conflict with Israel (and other Western countries). While Hezbollah is based in Lebanon, it is ideologically Iranian and is one of Iran’s most powerful proxies in the Middle East. According to CNN, Hezbollah is “arguably Iran’s most effective non-state partner.”

What is a Proxy?

In 1979, the Iranian Revolution saw the overthrow of a pro-West monarchy and the takeover of an Islamic, anti-West theocracy. It established a foreign policy in which it uses proxies, or “resistance forces,” to strengthen, amplify,  and expand its influence in the region. In exchange for their service and allegiance, Iran provides its proxy groups with military training, weapons, and financial backing. Hezbollah and Hamas are both Iranian proxies, as are Ansar Allah in Yemen, the Zaynabiyoun Brigade in Syria, and more. 

According to the Wilson Center, Iran gives Hezbollah $700 million a year (while also giving $100 million to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad). 

A Brief History of Hezbollah

When the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) fled Lebanon after the 1982 war with Israel, Hezbollah arose to fill the vacuum. The name Hezbollah, “Party of God,” was chosen by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who backed the militant group from the start. 

Aligned with Iran, Hezbollah espouses strong anti-American, anti-Israel, and general anti-Western views. Its manifesto, published in 1985, calls for expelling Western powers from Lebanon and destroying Israel. It also professes allegiance to Iran (although it does not call for the establishment of an entirely Muslim state in Lebanon, which is home to 18 religious groups). 

Since its creation, Hezbollah has led a campaign of attacks, including suicide bombings against Americans, Israelis, and rival Lebanese groups during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990).

In 1984, the Reagan administration designated Iran a State Sponsor of Terrorism. Between 1995 and 2022, various US administrations have sanctioned 11 Iranian proxies across five countries, with the goal of financially disrupting terrorist activities. 

The Arab Spring protests (2010-2012) gave way to several civil wars and conflicts in the region, including the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars, the Libyan, Yemeni, and Egyptian crises, and more. In Syria and Iraq, Hezbollah fought with other Iranian proxies, eventually leading the Arab League to designate it as a terrorist organization in 2016. 

Despite the terrorist label, Hezbollah has become a force to be reckoned with, both within Lebanon and the greater region. 

Hezbollah in Lebanese Politics

In 1992, Hezbollah established itself as a political party and Hassan Nasrallah became secretary general, a post he still holds today. In 2008, a newly-formed Lebanese cabinet recognized Hezbollah as an armed organization of the country and guaranteed its right to “liberate or recover occupied lands.” In the 2018 general election, Hezbollah held 12 seats and was part of an alliance that gained the majority of seats in parliament (70 out of 128). 

Hezbollah’s Role in the Hamas-Israel War

On October 7th, Hamas, a Sunni militant and designated terrorist group, attacked Israel and killed approximately 900 civilians and 350 soldiers, police, and security officers in one day. The terrorists also took more than 240 hostages, including Israelis, Americans, Thais, Germans, French, Argentinians, Russians, and other nationalities. 

While Hamas (Sunni) and Hezbollah (Shiite) fought on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war, today the two groups are trying to put aside their animosity and join together for a common cause: the destruction of Israel. 

Hezbollah praised the October 7th Hamas attack and has since traded fire with the IDF, but has refrained from entering the war. The US and its allies have warned Hezbollah against jumping into the fray. President Joe Biden said in his October 10 speech, “Let me say again, to any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word: Don’t.” He also dispatched two carrier groups to the region to back up this assertion. 

Hezbollah, however, is not taking its cues from Biden. Its allegiance is twofold: to Lebanon and to Iran. According to a recent Fortune article, this dual allegiance may present a conflict of interest in the future. For now, it is in Lebanon’s and Iran’s best interests not to enter the war. Lebanon has been in a state of deep political, financial, and social unrest since 2019, while Iran has various reasons for staying out of it. 

If the interests of either ever diverge, i.e. if Tehran decides that it would like its proxy to get involved in the Hamas-Israel war (as it did in the Syrian civil war), Hezbollah will have to decide where its allegiance lies: to its home base or its financier. For now, since both Lebanon and Iran are in agreement, Hezbollah can refrain from full-fledged warfare and content itself with sparse volleys of rocket fire into Israel. In truth, despite Hezbollah’s stated intention of destroying Israel, it really only aims to be a perpetual existential nuisance. With no Israel in the immediate vicinity to divert angst and attention toward, the Islamic Revolutionary regime would have to further face the ire of its own people, and its own colossal failures. 

For additional resources and guidance, the Interfor team is here to help.