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The Secret History of Hezbollah

It was always an outpost of the Iranian revolution

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By TONY BADRAN
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Another attraction for the Iranians was Lebanon’s large Shiite population, especially the influential Iranian-born cleric Musa al-Sadr, who proved helpful to many of the Iranian oppositionists. Both Sadr’s network and the PLO’s would continue to prove critical even after the Iranian revolution, in the ensuing power struggle between Iran’s revolutionary factions.

Of the several Iranian groups operating in Lebanon in the 1970s, two main factions are of note. One comprised figures from the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI), such as Mostafa Chamran, who served as defense minister after the fall of the shah. In Lebanon, Chamran and the LMI worked closely with Sadr, whom LMI leaders knew from his student days in Tehran, and who was the uncle of one of the group’s leaders in exile. 

Sadr also relied on the Palestinians for training his newly formed Amal militia. His concern wasn’t fighting Israel but rather protecting his and the Shiite community’s interests from other Lebanese factions with the onset of the Lebanese civil war. He and Chamran were ambivalent about the Palestinians, and in 1976, when Sadr aligned with Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and supported Syria’s entry into Lebanon, the divide only widened. The PLO and its allies on the Lebanese left opposed Syria and sharply criticized Sadr. Moreover, Palestinian attacks on Israel from south Lebanon put Shiite villagers in the face of Israeli retaliation, a danger that worried both Sadr and Chamran. It wasn’t long, then, before Amal came into conflict with the same Palestinian factions that had trained Sadr’s men. 

In contrast, the other main faction of Iranian revolutionaries operating in Lebanon maintained close relations with the PLO and mistrusted Sadr and the LMI. This faction was made up of devotees of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and after the Iranian revolution became part of the Islamic Republic party. Many of them also became top commanders in the IRGC and the Office of Liberation Movements (OLM), charged with establishing contacts with and supporting revolutionary movements abroad. In effect, the OLM was the precursor of the Quds Force, the overseas operations arm of the IRGC. It was set up under the supervision of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a close associate of Khomeini and his heir apparent, and was headed by his son, Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Montazeri. 

Others associated with the Khomeinist faction working in Lebanon included Jalaleddin Farsi, a close associate of Montazeri who was the party’s candidate in Iran’s first presidential election after the revolution, and Hojjatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami, a student of Khomeini who later became ambassador to Syria and would play a critical role in the emergence of Hezbollah. Another important figure in this camp who played a key role in forming Hezbollah was Mohammad Saleh Hosseini, a founding member of the IRGC. 

Hosseini appears prominently in the primary sources, and yet he has been entirely overlooked in the scholarly literature on Hezbollah. Born to an Iranian family in 1942, Hosseini grew up in Najaf, Iraq, where he became involved in, and got arrested for, Islamic activism, and also established close relations with Iraqi-based officials from Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, the dominant party in the PLO. After the 1968 Baathist coup in Iraq, Hosseini was forced to flee to Lebanon, where, in late 1970, he was given shelter by Musa al-Sadr and became the principal of one of Sadr’s schools, where, thanks to his contacts with Fatah, he helped train the school’s Shiite youths. 

Even after he was dismissed from the school, Hosseini and the Khomeinists established connections with young Shiite militants associated with Fatah who yet balked at the Palestinian group’s secular, indeed leftist, outlook. From the Khomeinists’ perspective, these young fighters were ripe for recruitment, and part of Hosseini’s role was to ensure that the Shiites he cultivated were, unlike those in Sadr’s organization, pro-Khomeini. Those who passed inspection would come to form the nucleus of Hezbollah. The most famous of them was Imad Mughniyeh, who would become the group’s military commander and mastermind of many of Hezbollah’s most notorious operations. By the time of the Marine barracks bombing in 1983, Mughniyeh was already a well-known Iranian asset who, along with other like-minded Shiites, had been working closely with future senior IRGC commanders since the mid-1970s.

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