Iran’s Changing Relationship with Hezbollah

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 19

Iran’s alleged links with al-Qaeda has eclipsed the fact that the Islamic Republic remains blacklisted by the U.S. State Department as the most prolific state sponsor of terrorism, essentially because of its support for the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian groups like HAMAS and Islamic Jihad. A post-9/11 geopolitical landscape coupled with the conservatives’ increasing consolidation of power in Tehran portends no immediate decrease in Iran’s posture towards Hezbollah.

The Iranian security establishment initially reached the conclusion that the 9/11 terrorist assaults on the U.S. would bode well for the future of Lebanese Hezbollah insofar as the attacks shifted U.S. attention away from militant Shi’a Islam. This assessment, while not totally without merit, has been revised not least because U.S. officials continue to depict Hezbollah as a major terrorist organization and an enemy of the United States. Indeed, if recent statements by U.S. officials are anything to go by, the Islamic Republic may find itself on the wrong side of the war on terror, not because of its alleged links to al-Qaeda, but because of its visible support for Hezbollah and Palestinian militant organizations.

Iran’s Motivations for Supporting Hezbollah

The Iranian Government’s motivations for supporting Hezbollah have remained largely consistent since 1982 (Hezbollah’s birth). Aside from supporting Hezbollah for religious, ideological and humanitarian reasons, the Islamic Republic’s policy is driven by its internal contradictions and its own perception of its geo-strategic environment.

On the national security front, as long as there is no prospect for peace in the Middle East and Iranian officials feel threatened by U.S. actions and policies, the Islamic Republic will not sever its support for Hezbollah. Iran’s strategic predicament—bordered by Afghanistan and Iraq, with Israel nearby—increases its perception of besiegement. Support of Hezbollah serves two key purposes: pressure on Israel and the U.S. through covert and overt means. Hence, Iran uses Hezbollah as an instrument to pressure foreign elements that represent a national security threat, while giving Tehran plausible deniability.

The various institutional and non-institutional actors—each seeking to establish and exert their own power—try to influence the policymaking process as much as possible. This dynamic usually results in political power struggles between the two key political groups, the reformists and the conservatives. For the conservatives, severing all ties with Hezbollah, especially the paramilitary relationship, represents an abandonment of the ideals of the Islamic revolution.

Iranian influence over Hezbollah continues to be exercised through a multitude of individual and institutional relationships, especially through close relations between senior Iranian clerics and notably, the Ministry of Intelligence & National Security (MOIS), the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its elite unit, the Qods Force. Although Iran has a cohesive structure for policy decision-making and formulation, security and foreign policy usually takes place outside of the institutional bodies via a collective of institutional and non-institutional actors lobbying for consensus. Thus major policies such as continued confrontation with the U.S. and paramilitary support for Islamist revolutionary groups such as Hezbollah generally require consensus within a regime renowned for its polycentric nature.

The complexity of Iranian-Hezbollah relations is aptly reflected in the way different Iranian institutions influence different constituent organizations of the latter. The Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (MOIS), currently headed by Yunesi, has considerable influence over Hezbollah’s ultra-secretive security and special overseas operations organization. [1] IRGC is largely responsible for arming and training Hezbollah’s paramilitary forces. Furthermore various “Bonyads” (or semi-official foundations) exert influence on the political elites of Hezbollah.

Varying Definitions of Terrorism

According to a 2003 State Department report, Iran remains the “most active” state sponsor of international terrorism. It provides money, weapons and training to Hezbollah and Palestinian rejectionist groups. While the U.S. acknowledges that no definition is accepted universally, Washington continues to present Iran as the most significant terrorist threat in the region because it supports surrogates acting against US interests. Moreover, Iran’s paramilitary support of Hezbollah — a group that has demonstrated the capability and intention to attack US interests and which the State Department classifies as a foreign terrorist organization — makes it more difficult for Tehran to rehabilitate its behavior. While the Iranian leadership is irritated by the terrorism classification, this has not motivated Tehran to change its behavior.

As long as Iran does not consider financial and materiel support to Hezbollah as support for terrorist activity, the U.S. and Europe will be unable to impact this aspect of Iran’s foreign policy. While visiting Lebanon in 2003, President Khatami stated: “resistance is a legitimate right for the Lebanese people”. Any moderation in Iran’s paramilitary support of Hezbollah could prompt US officials to reconsider Iran’s designation as a formal state sponsor of terrorism—the political and national security landscape in the U.S. would have to be as flexible towards Iran as current policy is towards Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

Iran’s Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi reiterated, in a 31 August press conference, the official Iranian position that Lebanese Hezbollah is a liberation movement. Responding to a question about U.S. claims that Iran supports terrorism, Yunesi said, “If they mean Iran’s support for Hezbollah, they should know that the Hezbollah is a legal group which was created to fight Israel. It is a defense organization which was established in order to defend the Lebanese people and land.” Yunesi further stated: “We do not consider the Intifada [uprising] of the Palestinian people as a terrorist movement,” IRNA reported. “It is the very right of the Palestinian people to defend themselves and all Muslim countries support them.” [2]

Assessing the Future of Iranian-Hezbollah Relations

In the recent past, Hezbollah’s leaders have declared a grudging readiness to accept a possible Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese peace agreement. However, such an acceptance likely would represent a direct threat to the organization’s source of power and legitimacy, which is its struggle against Israel. The apparent contradiction between Hezbollah’s long-term objectives and effort to appear moderate is reflected in an internal conflict between the more pragmatic and the more radical elements—this power struggle is strikingly reminiscent of that in Iran. It is possible that Iran’s own internal struggles have posed challenges for Hezbollah.

Many academics continue to debate Hezbollah’s longevity as a strictly paramilitary organization. The organization has strived in recent years to transform itself into a social and political movement that could play a more conventional role in Lebanon’s political life. As a political party, Hezbollah appears to have, for the moment, struck a balance between its Islamic ideology and the realities of the Lebanese political arena.

Iran has emphasized the need for Hezbollah to consolidate and to continue to broaden its political relationships within Lebanon even while Iran has strengthened diplomatic ties with the Lebanese government. Iran’s changing relationship with Hezbollah might be a reflection of the more widespread judgment that the export of the revolution might have failed, i.e. that Hezbollah has not achieved an Islamic state in Lebanon.


Any hopes within the Iranian security establishment that America’s battle with al-Qaeda and militant Sunni Islamists had caused the U.S. to reconsider its view of Hezbollah were dashed by September 2002 speech by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. In the speech, Armitage called Hezbollah the “A-team” of terrorists, with a “blood debt” to the United States (a reference to Hezbollah attacks against U.S. interests in Lebanon in the early 1980’s), vowing that its “time will come.” Nonetheless, some Iranian officials seem oblivious to the fact that to some circles in the U.S., Hezbollah represents a more pernicious long-term threat than al-Qaeda.

While the Islamic Republic cooperated with the U.S. led effort to topple the Taleban and dislodge al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, this did not provide it with any respite from relentless U.S. accusations that it is a prolific sponsor of state terrorism. This situation is unlikely to be resolved in the near future, for as long as Tehran perceives that it is under threat, the Islamic Republic will not consider altering the fundamental nature of its support to Hezbollah.


1. The more talented operatives of Hezbollah security are flown to Tehran to attend an intensive course by MOIS trainers at the “Imam Jaafar Sadegh” intelligence academy. Aside from learning conventional intelligence tradecraft, the operatives are given training in the interrogation of Israeli soldiers and intelligence operatives.

2. RFE/RL Iran Report, Vol. 7, No. 31, 13 September 2004.