From Michael Young
This interview with Timur Goksel (click here if you don’t see the embedded clip below), a former political advisor to the United Nations Interim Force in southern Lebanon (UNIFIL), is interesting in two regards. Goksel is someone intimately familiar with Lebanon’s Shi’ite community, and his observations (many of which I happen to agree with) are worth listening to. But he is also someone who, to me, often appears so taken up by the domestic narrative of the Hezbollah-Shi’ite relationship, one that he has witnessed from up close, that he underplays broader, equally significant, aspects of Hezbollah’s behavior.
As I said, much of what Goksel says here is accurate. Don’t expect the Shi’ites to push Hezbollah to disarm, because the party’s weapons are tied into the community’s sense of strength and revival. Hezbollah has also, for the moment, indeed taken a more pragmatic approach to the idea of an Islamic state. This no longer seems to be a priority, as the party has opted for a much more effective strategy, one it developed after it successfully participated in Lebanon’s first postwar parliamentary elections in 1992: namely, integrating its supporters into the state and using this as a means of preserving its political, military, and geographic autonomy—in other words, and paradoxically, joining the state to better keep the state at arm’s length away from Hezbollah’s vital interests.
I also agree with Goksel that to truly understand Hezbollah, one must understand the sociology of the Shi’ite community. However, where I think he comes up short is in the larger picture (at least in this video), particularly with regard to the party’s regional links, interests, and calculations. Only once, I believe, does Goksel mention Iran, in the context of the Amal-Hezbollah deal negotiated in Damascus in 1990 under Syrian and Iranian auspices. Otherwise, his tendency is to talk about Hezbollah as a largely Lebanese Shi’ite phenomenon.
Is there any real doubt, however, that Hezbollah, as a military and political organization, is an extension of Iran’s security and intelligence apparatus and, more broadly, serves Iranian regional interests? Iran’s achievement was certainly to anchor Hezbollah in the Lebanese Shi’ite reality, but it is not that reality that explains why Hezbollah is arming Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and elsewhere; why it possesses a military capacity, including long-range missiles, that cannot conceivably be justified in a Lebanese context; why it is helping train the Mehdi Army in Iraq; why its youths are being sent to Iran for military instruction and political and religious indoctrination; and why Iran can rely on sympathetic Shi’ite networks in South America and West Africa.
Yes, Shi’ites fear that Hezbollah’s disarmament will again lead to their marginalization, even if Hezbollah has been instrumental in heightening this utterly unrealistic existential fear. But let’s reverse that. Would the community agree to surrender Hezbollah’s weapons in exchange for greater political power in Lebanon? In fact, I believe Hezbollah would consider this excellent idea the kiss of death, which is why it has so strenuously sought in the past three years, after the 2006 summer war, to maintain the community in a state of near permanent hostility towards its political foes in the country—including a vast majority of Sunnis, the Druze, and a sizable portion of the Christian community. Hezbollah best retains authority over the community in times of polarization, allowing it to set the communal agenda and block out dissenting voices.
Repeatedly, Hezbollah has expressed its refusal to hand its weapons over to a sovereign Lebanese state. Those who criticize the state, particularly its past shortcomings with respect to the Shi’ites, may be justified in doing so. But this is really just a vicious circle, so you can turn back that question against the critics by asking: What kind of state does Hezbollah desire when it has spent years politically, geographically, and ideologically separating Shi’ites from Lebanese society, even using their hold over certain state institutions to reinforce this? There is an overriding explanation: If Shi’ites embrace the Lebanese state, Hezbollah would lose much of its power, its justification for retaining its weapons, and its regional usefulness to Iran, which defines the party’s strategy.
That’s the other side of Goksel’s comments, and one that somebody with his knowledge surely can tell us much more about. Perhaps he did; he just didn’t happen to do so in this particular segment, which requires some necessary counterpoint to make the whole more intelligible.
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