Is Hizballah becoming dispensable?

By: Kai Kverme, University of Oslo.

Hizballah is the ultimate success-story of the Islamic revolution in Iran. The late founder of the republic, Khomeini, considered it to be a priority to export the revolution, and found fertile ground in Lebanon.
During his exile in Najaf in Iraq he got to know most of those who subsequently became the leadership in Hizballah, while they were in Iraq to further their religious studies in the seminaries there. So when the revolution came, a strong link was already established with a generation of young, radical clerics. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 led the Iranian leadership to dispatch Revolutionary Guards to the Biqaa, with Syrian approval and assistance, and the new party was born. While the initial goal was to fight the invading Israelis, the overall aim was the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Lebanon modeled on the Iranian one, and under the leadership of Khomeini.
When the Lebanese civil war came to an end in 1990, Hizballah was confronted with a new reality; a post-war system where Syria had the upper hand in all decisions, political as well as military. The Syrian regime then embarked on what has been dubbed the two-track strategy; Hizballah would have to participate in the political system, but in return the party was allowed to keep its arms as they were elevated to the status of “official resistance”. Hizballah was in the years that followed allowed to expand their activities and in 2000 the Israelis withdrew from South Lebanon, which it had occupied since 1978. Instead of the Lebanese army being deployed there after the withdrawal, it was Hizballah who took control, under the pretext that not all the occupied territories were liberated, and that therefore the resistance would have to continue.
The Islamic republic now had a military presence on the Israeli border, but in Lebanon more and more voices could be heard demanding the disarmament of Hizballah, or a merger of some sort with the Lebanese Army. The assassination of former premier Hariri seven years ago intensified these demands, and it also forced Hizballah become an actor on the Lebanese political stage it had sought to avoid. Previously it had portrayed itself as being above petty party-politics and dealing with overarching question such as resisting the occupation and liberating occupied land. Since 2005 Hizballah has participated in the various Lebanese governments, and is the leading force in the pro-Syrian 8.Mach alliance.
However, the Syrian uprising has exposed Hizballah in an unprecedented way. The party’s aggressive support for the Syrian regime and its brutal onslaught on the population has disgusted many of its former allies, not least in the Sunni community.  But for Hizballah this is potentially a question of survival as a militant movement; most, if not all its weapons are coming from Iran through Syria. Politically, the backing from the Syrian regime has been of vital importance for the party, not least on the international stage.
But the Syrian regime is now fighting what seems to be an increasingly hopeless battle for its survival, and its fall would imply that it will be very difficult for Hizballah to re-arm in case of a new conflict with Israel. While there is no doubt that Hizballah and its presence on the Israeli border has served Iran well, this situation could lead the Iranians to reconsider their relations with the party. One of the reasons that this might not be as hard for the Iranians as one could imagine, is the changes that have taken place in the geo-political environment of the Islamic republic.
In 1982, the year Hizballah was officially founded, the new republic was surrounded by enemies; it was at war with Saddam’s Iraq, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan was ruled by pro-US dictator Zia ul-Haq and across the Gulf, all the regimes there were hostile, to say the least. Add to that a border with NATO member Turkey and another with the Soviet republic Azerbaijan, and it produced a real feeling of vulnerability which governed the politics of the republic.
Today the situation is almost the opposite, Iraq is ruled by old allies, and the Iranian influence there is ever increasing, the same goes for Afghanistan, where the Americans are about to withdraw its forces. Pakistani-American relations are getting colder by the day, Turkey has initiated a new political orientation toward the Middle East including Iran, and Azerbaijan is now a sovereign republic. While it is true that the relations with the GCC are not good, some of these, like Qatar and the Emirates have taken a much more conciliatory tone towards Iran than Saudi Arabia. Despite the tensions at the moment, not leas due to the situation in Bahrain, the relations could get back to where they were just a couple of years ago.
This development could lead Iran to rely less on the military capabilities of Hizballah, and to further its focus on its own neighbors. This will not happen overnight, and much will also depend on developments within Iran. But it is a real possibility that we are seeing the beginning of a new era in the history of Hizballah.