The secretary-general of Lebanese Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has welcomed the news that Iran’s next president will be ultra-conservative judge Ebrahim Raisi.
At the weekend, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ oldest proxy in the region told Raisi his “election” had “renewed the hopes of the Iranian people and the people of the region who see you as a shield and a strong supporter... for resistance against aggressors.”
The remarks were strange given that the elected Iranian executive has absolutely no power in regulating Iran’s relations with proxy groups, unlike the IRGC, as outgoing foreign minister Javad Zarif recently confirmed. This being the case, what difference does Raisi’s appointment make to Hezbollah?
Hezbollah was established in Lebanon in 1982 with Iranian funding and the support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force was later entrusted with training up its first armed brigades and has been its active link to Iran ever since.
The Quds Force itself is the fifth arm of the IRGC along with its ground troops, navy, air force and paramilitary Basij wing. It was formed in 1988 from an Iran-Iraq war predecessor known as ‘Department 900’, which was active in intelligence fields and also allegedly had a presence in Afghanistan before the war. It falls under the ultimate control of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei according to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.
The activities of Iran’s proxy groups, from Lebanon and the Palestinian territories to Iraq, Syria and Yemen and even Latin America, are the product of decisions made by figures outside the Iranian executive no matter how “moderate” or “hardline” the government of the day.
During the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, these activities were limited to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, though these groups had offices in Syria as well. Rafsanjani maintained a close relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which took European and American citizens hostage even as the premier was seeking to improve relations with the West. In the end, Rafsanjani acted as an intermediary between US President George W. Bush and Hezbollah to secure the prisoners’ release.
Years earlier, in the last few months of his life in 2016, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani gave a clearer view of his stance on the Quds Force and Iran’s regional proxies. In a posthumously-released interview with his biographer, the former president called the Quds Force an obstacle to the essential functions of government.
The Quds Force, Rafsanjani said, "is a real problem now... Its problem is that it has denied the Foreign Ministry its responsibilities in the most sensitive areas that concern us. In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, wherever they are present, we really have a problem. In these countries, no one can appoint an ambassador without the consent of the Quds Force."
Guards Cement Decision-Making Power Over Regional Proxies
When Ghasem Soleimani became commander of the Quds Force in 1988, just a few short months after Mohammad Khatami was elected president, the balance of power tipped even further. Unlike Rafsanjani, Khatami had no influence whatsoever over relations with Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
In 2001, during Khatami’s second term in office, politicians close to him sent an unofficial note to the United States’ interest section the Swiss embassy in Tehran, offering suggestions to re-establish bilateral relations. Then-diplomat Hossein Mousavian would later write in his book, The Narrative of Iranian Nuclear Crisis, that one of the ideas had been to try to convert Hezbollah into an ordinary political party – i.e., disarming it.
The proposals were never fully implemented and today, Hezbollah is widely perceived as being split into two military and political “wings”, allowing it to avoid sanctions in some countries. In the eyes president-elect Raisi and like-minded politicians today, if Hezbollah's disarmament had taken place, it would have been no less than a betrayal.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad adopted a mixture of previous administrations’ approaches toward the issue of proxies. In the first four years he seemed to largely support Hezbollah and the IRGC’s other puppets, but about-turned after the IRGC and militias joined forces in support of Bashar Assad in the Syrian Civil War.
At the end of his presidency, Ahmadinejad declared that he was opposed to the Islamic Republic's actions in support of Assad, and to the escalation of the civil war in Syria. This led to backlash from the Guards themselves. Ahmadinejad's deputy, Hamid Baghaei, was sentenced to prison at the end of his tenure over the "embezzlement" of 3,766,000 euros, which the Quds Force had allegedly given the president in cash for payments to African countries. Ahmadinejad claimed that Ghassem Soleimani had given this cash to him personally and not to Baghaei, and more recently threatened to publish his private business dealings with Soleimani.
At the time, Soleimani was asked to appear in court as witness, or else to declare in some way that Baghaei was innocent. But the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force never responded to the request, enraging Ahmadinejad all the more.
Rouhani vs Raisi: From Indifference to Mutual Agreement?
The Rouhani administration has been similarly powerless to stop the IRGC’s use of proxies in military and strategic operations in the region. Indeed, their activities intensified in the last eight years, while the Foreign Ministry appeared to have given up trying to assert itself or deal with the commanders responsible.
Javad Zarif has previously said that when he first became foreign minister, Soleimani informed him that the IRGC's proxy groups were present in Yemen. Up until then, he claimed, he had not known a thing about it. In the middle of his term, Zarif did succeed in removing the IRGC-linked Hossein Amir Abdollahian from post as deputy minister for foreign affairs, but this had no material impact on the operations.
Recently a leaked audio tape of Zarif lamenting the sacrifice of Iranian diplomacy to “the battlefield” caused political uproar in Iran – even though by now, this was a commonplace assessment.
The knock-on effect of the Iranian government’s helplessness in the face of proxy groups has been the reimposition of US sanctions and economic, as well as diplomatic, disaster. In spring 2018, when US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), one of the reasons given was the IRGC’s support of armed militias and proxies in the Middle East.
In telephone calls between French President Emmanuel Macron and Hassan Rouhani, one of the issues most frequently on the agenda has been bringing about an end to Iran’s foreign intervention in Lebanon, via Hezbollah. The French premier was wasting his breath; Rouhani and his government had no authority on this matter, despite being officially held accountable for it. And unlike his predecessors Khatami and Ahmadinejad, Rouhani never once travelled to Lebanon nor – at least publicly – met with Hassan Nasrallah.
The change of government in Iran will not have a major impact on the IRGC's support of proxy groups, nor on Hezbollah itself. Under Raisi, though, the government might take on more of a facilitatory role, allowing the easy and effective transfer of material support to regional proxies, and could in turn solicit money from the IRGC for its own foreign projects. With a regime insider installed, the two groups’ ideological is also more clearly aligned. For these reasons, perhaps, Hassan Nasrallah will be happy with the outcome of Friday’s so-called “election”.