The connections between Iran and Lebanon have received much attention in recent years. Drawing the ire of the Bush administration and the Olmert government in summer of 2006, the latter sought to break the ties between Hezbollah and Iran while also containing Hezbollah’s growing power and influence. Neither objective was achieved. Instead, Israel was drawn into a protracted bloody confrontation that caused widespread destruction in Lebanon. A year later, the Wino Coad commission investigating that war issued a damning verdict on the Israeli government’s conduct criticizing Olmert’s “serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence.... His decision was made without close study of the complex features of the Lebanon front and of the military, political and diplomatic options available to Israel.”
Olmert survived this political crisis, which threatened to unravel his political career; however, the Lebanese quagmire continues to burden its southern neighbors and others in the region. Iran, too, continues to obstruct efforts toward regional stability. Understanding the enduring linkages between these two countries is an ongoing challenge for policy makers and politicians alike. A new volume by Houchang Chehabi, Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon in the Last 500 Years, provides a definitive contribution, including an elaborate bibliography.
The historical links between Iran and Lebanon date back to the Achaemenid Empire, in which the Phoenician coastal city states of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos and Arvad were launching grounds for Persian-Hellenic battles. Indeed, the Phoenicians, capitalizing early on their skill as traders, benefited too from the vastness of the Persian empire. These early ties foreshadowed the future “commercial, capitalistic and political” nature of this relationship. Chehabi’s edited volume begins with the emergence of the sixteenth century Safavid Dynasty, when the most definitive links were forged.
Albert Hourani’s “From Jabil Amil to Persia” describes a defining moment. Shah Ismail invited the clerical community of Jabil Amil and Bahrain to Iran to convert the Sunni population to Twelver Shia Islam. The Amili scholars, while importing this brand of Islam, equally adapted to the new Persian domain. This mutually beneficial relationship was marked by the assistance and, more important, the legitimization that the Shiite religious leaders of Jabal Amil in south Lebanon granted to the Safavid dynasty. Indeed, a quid pro quo of sorts developed between the clergy and the crown: the Lebanese clerics legitimized Safavid dynastic rule in exchange for expansive clerical influence over conversion and education.
Rula Jurdi Abisaab’s chapter takes the reader through the vicissitudes of Shia renewal within the Safavid Empire. “They were the proselytes of a new era that necessitated a redefinition of the jurist’s role in society and called for a new venture towards temporal authority and the Shia state.” Shah Ismail used the presence of the ulema to balance against the warrior Qizilbash and the Persian aristocracy. Abisaab articulates the games of power politics in ethnic terms as well. As the shah increased the power of the Amili scholars within the political order of Safavid power, there was growing competition between Persian and Arab scholars and further definition of the boundaries between Sunni and Shia.
Beyond the clerical migration that laid the foundation for this relationship were the student migrations. Iranian students began to attend the alluring Protestant and Jesuit colleges that had opened in the Levant. “Going to study in Beirut was for a young Iranian a way to get a modern Western education without leaving the Muslim world.” Many of the Iranian elite from the Hoveyda brothers to Shapour Bakhtiar studied in Beirut. The city was a multicultural, pluralistic landscape that opened avenues to both the East and West.
Over the years, Beirut provided refuge to many of Iran’s political and religious activists. The Bahai community found sanctuary among Lebanon’s Cedars, as did many Pahlavi opponents.
While Mohammad Reza Pahlavi pursued a foreign policy based on Realpolitik, Iran’s Shia connections played a part in its foreign relations. William Abbas Samii’s chapter suggests that the shah maintained contact with prominent Shia as well as the Maronite community, which quietly encouraged Shia empowerment. Similar to Iran’s use of Hezbollah today, the reliance on Maronite Christian leaders for its purposes reveals the importance of mutual state interests. The shah, unlike the revolutionary regime, was unsuccessful in cultivating longstanding ties to the community due to the tide of Arab nationalism that swept over the country.
Needless to say, the shah’s support of Musa Sadr represents the quintessential link between the two countries. Musa Sadr, while born in Qom, traced his lineage back to the Jabil Amili clerics who migrated to Iran during the Safavid era. Sadr eagerly returned to the land of his ancestors as an Iranian clerical envoy in 1959. In the article by Chehabi and Majid Tafreshi, it becomes clear that the shah, Sadr and oppositionists were struggling to advance their own interests amidst the wider regional political struggles in Palestine, Lebanon and Iran. While Sadr received initial political support from the shah, he was morally behind Khomeini’s movement against clerical quietism.
While the latter maintained absolute support for the Palestinian cause, Sadr directed his effort towards Shia empowerment as Palestinians began to overrun southern Lebanon in the aftermath of 1971. Indeed, these inter-Shia squabbles between Sadr, the shah and Khomeini reveal much about the tension and ideological disunity that existed within the pre-1979 revolutionary movement.
For the Pahlavi monarchy, further obstruction can also be attributed to the presence of political opponents who worked within the Shia community. From the Mossadegh collaborator Ayatollah Kashani to Mostafa Chamran, who worked intimately with Sadr through the revolution, to the infamous Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, who assisted in the creation of Hezbollah — these dissidents used the linkages between the two societies to plant an Iranian foothold in the hills of Jabil Amil. It was through these bonds that Iran gained further entrée into Lebanon in the aftermath of its 1979 Islamic revolution.
The Iranian Revolution cemented Iran’s link to Lebanon. For Khomeini, Lebanon provided the ideal outlet for successfully exporting Iran’s “model.” The Shias, as stated by Chehabi, were a “natural audience,” considering the extreme nature of the regime’s ideology coupled with the geostrategic conditions in the aftermath of the revolution — war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Chehabi highlights the factional nature of the regime’s Lebanese foray, which continues to dominate Iranian internal politics today. Tehran’s crowning achievement was the 1982 creation and 1985 institutionalization of Hezbollah.
At the time of the 2006 conflict, the policy debate centered on the political and military linkages connecting Iran and Hezbollah. Many speculated on the patron-client relationship dating back to the group’s formation. Tehran, having nurtured this proxy in its own ideological image, is thought to have significant political influence on the actions of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
However, Chehabi postulates another argument. While it is clear that Iran has financially and militarily sustained the group since its inception, ideological divergences between the two could signify greater independence. Indeed, after Khomeini’s death in 1989, Iran reoriented its isolationist foreign policy towards integration over isolation. In this vein, the clerical regime under the aegis of President Hashemi Rafsanjani moved towards pragmatic foreign relations.
Such moves in the aftermath of the 1989 Taif accords also led Hezbollah to acknowledge its political and social limitations as an ideological Islamist champion amidst the diversity of the Lebanese state. Indeed what ensued was a gradual moderation in Hezbollah’s leadership in order to participate in the 1992 parliamentary elections. While Hezbollah has not been warmly embraced by Lebanese society, one cannot contest the success of Hezbollah’s model of providing for the dispossessed — a model imported from Iran, where such munificence has not trickled down to the masses. Hezbollah has supplanted the weak central government. It has also expanded its sources of patronage beyond the Islamic Republic.
Equally illuminating is Chehabi’s chapter on inter-ulama relations. Often assumed to be linked, there is ideological and epistemological disagreement over the concept of velayat e-faqih. The differences are grounded not only in religion but also in politics. What becomes clear through Chehabi’s analysis is that inter-Shia relations are not uniform. There exists a tension between the theological centers of Qom and Najaf and those in Lebanon. The latter have developed an identity reflective of the pluralistic Lebanese environment and the nature of the Lebanese community. This is exemplified in the difference in mourning rituals of Ashura, which were imported to Lebanon by Iranian students in the nineteenth century. The Iranian ceremony is decidedly violent and, when performed in Lebanon, provoked opposition among the religious establishment. Today too, while Hezbollah maintains Iranian allegiance, Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah provides a balanced perspective for the Shia community.
Chehabi’s volume has emerged at an important time. As both Lebanon and Iran continue to be embroiled in domestic and regional crises, it is critical to understand the roots of their differences as well as the links between the two. Chehabi unveils some crucial misperceptions and contradictions that are important to consider when deconstructing this relationship.