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27/09/2006 | Hezbollah's Iranian Connection

Stratfor Staff

Prior to the rise of the Shia in Iraq, Hezbollah -- as a radical Shiite Islamist organization -- was Iran's main asset in the Arab world. In fact, it likely will continue to be used by Tehran as a key tool for furthering Iranian geopolitical interests in the region, until such time as Shiite power has been consolidated in Baghdad and Iran's interests there secured.

 

In its earliest days, Hezbollah was a classic militant organization -- the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the elite unit of the Iranian military. It was founded as a way to export the ideals of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini's Islamic revolution to the Shiite community of Lebanon, and served as a model for follow-on organizations (some even using the same name) in other Arab states. It did not take long, however, for Hezbollah to emerge in Lebanon as a guerrilla movement, whose fighters were trained in conventional military tactics.

In the mid-1980s, Iran's premier intelligence agency, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), assumed the task of managing Tehran's militant assets -- not just in the Middle East but in other parts of the world as well. This allowed the Iranians, through a special unit within MOIS, to strike at Israeli interests in places as diverse as Latin America and Southeast Asia.

The relationship between MOIS and Hezbollah remains a subject worthy of study in light of the current situation in Lebanon. Of course, Iran has been Hezbollah's chief source of funding and weapons over the years, and the Iranians continue to supply extensive training in weapons, tactics, communications, surveillance and other methods to the militant wing of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The relationship is sufficiently close that the Hezbollah branch within Iran recently declared it would unleash militant attacks against Israelis and Americans around the world if given the order by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Tehran insists that Hezbollah is not an arm of official policy.)

We have previously discussed the possibility that Hezbollah might be moved to seize hostages or engage in other militant acts, given the pressure the Israelis now are bringing to bear. There is some question, of course, as to whether Iran might be involved in future militant operations -- and if so, what assets it might use and the modalities that would apply.


There is a division of labor of sorts in the way that Iran manages its foreign assets: The IRGC (which is led by a professional military officer with strong ideological credentials as an Islamist) oversees the Lebanese Hezbollah, while MOIS (which almost always is headed by a cleric) manages militant operatives and groups in other parts of the Muslim world -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, India. Moreover, MOIS also maintains contacts among the Shiite immigrant populations in non-Muslim countries, including those in the West.

It also is important to note that radical Shiite Islamist ideology is only one factor that shapes Tehran's decisions. Ethnicity and nationalism also play an important role in Iran's dealings with Shiite allies of Arab, South Asian and other descent. The Persians claim a rich cultural heritage, which they view as superior to that of the Arabs. This attitude impacts the level of trust and cooperation between the Iranians and other Shiite groups -- including Hezbollah -- when it comes to sensitive international operations. It is little wonder, then, that the Lebanese organization's sphere of operations does not extend much beyond the Levant.

Hezbollah's Iranian Connection

It follows that Hezbollah is a useful tool for Iran in its dealings with Israel, but in few other areas. However, Iranian intelligence has cultivated numerous groups that can serve its interests in other parts of the world, and it maintains contact with these groups through MOIS operatives placed in diplomatic posts.

A History of Cooperation

Though it has been many years since Hezbollah carried out significant attacks beyond the Middle East, the participation of MOIS agents in some of those attacks is worthy of note. Investigations into the 1988 hijacking of Kuwait Airways Flight 422 out of Bangkok and two bombings in Buenos Aires -- in 1992 and 1994 -- both revealed involvement by MOIS, coordinating with local Hezbollah operatives. However, to provide plausible deniability, the hijacking and bomb teams were deployed from outside the targeted country; the assets in place were used to conduct preoperational surveillance on potential targets.

Up close, what this would mean is that the MOIS officer at the Iranian embassy in the target country or city would maintain close contact with the Hezbollah cells in his area or responsibility. Given the rules of intelligence work, an "official asset" like a diplomat is usually under suspicion and surveillance as an intelligence officer (or IO); therefore, less-prominent Hezbollah members can be used to case potential targets. In a situation where a MOIS agent is believed to be under such tight surveillance that he cannot function effectively, the Iranians might call on the services of a clandestine MOIS agent instead. In the case of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, the MOIS officer was the Iranian cultural attache, who oversaw the operation from the safety of his embassy office. The Argentines eventually declared seven embassy employees as "persona non grata" due to suspected connections to the bombing.

Upon receiving a "go" order for an operation -- such as assassinations of Iranian dissidents or the kidnappings of Western diplomatic and intelligence personnel (for instance, CIA station chief William F. Buckley in 1984 and U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins in 1988) -- activity levels at the embassy spike. The role of MOIS frequently would be to provide the cash or supply weapons or materials needed for an attack carried out by its "militant assets." In some countries, such as Britain (where Hezbollah bombed a Jewish charity in 1994), it can be difficult to obtain items like blasting caps and explosives; these can be supplied with the protection of a diplomatic pouch.

Many MOIS intelligence operatives have been educated in the United States or in Britain, wear nice suits, are multilingual and move easily in Western social circles -- unlike the IRGC operatives in Lebanon, who, socially speaking, are rougher around the edges. The combination of their brains and Hezbollah's willingness to pursue martyrdom can produce formidable capabilities.

With Hezbollah under attack in Lebanon and Iran unable to send significant reinforcements, there is some possibility that Hezbollah might resort to staging an attack abroad as a way of countering the Israeli assault. If so, it is highly likely that operatives already are on the move; the organization has been known to use "off the shelf" operational plans in the past, and its targeting information and surveillance would need to be updated -- regardless of whether an order to strike is actually issued. It is reasonable to believe that Hezbollah would find it advantageous to coordinate with MOIS again, as in past operations. Whether the Iranians would see events through the same lens, however, is much less clear. Tehran might cooperate in an attack only if it is willing to seriously escalate the current conflict in the Middle East -- which, given its many interests in the region, does not appear so far to be the case. 

Stratfor (Estados Unidos)

 


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