Hezbollah and Iran’s regional strategy

Hezbollah: A trump card in Iran’s regional strategy

After about a decade of relative quiet on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, tensions are now again running high in the area. These tensions have been fuelled by a shift in Iranian tactics as Teheran strives to implement its grand strategy to establish its presence and extend its power to threaten its enemies, spearheaded by Israel, by consolidating its control along the “Shi’ite crescent”. This is a route stretching from Teheran, through Iraq and Syria and deep into Lebanon.

This plan is being implemented gradually and simultaneously in several arenas. The major player in charge of crucial parts of the strategy is Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite terrorist organisation based in Lebanon. The recently discovered Hezbollah cross-border tunnels designed to facilitate an invasion of Israeli territory and a new practice of airlifting Iranian weapons shipments directly to Hezbollah are both evidence of the shift in tactics by Teheran.

In particular, these developments suggest that Iran’s ruling Ayatollahs feel confident enough to seek to ramp up their campaign to transform Lebanon into a de facto Iranian “satellite state”.

Other aspects of the Iranian plan include supporting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad with Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah forces fighting rebels, jihadists, ISIS and others.

For the same purpose, in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Iran engages directly with the population, offering health, education and cultural services via local subsidiaries. Teheran is meddling in the internal politics of all of these states, attempting to harness the political power of the Shi’ite segments of the population, while also controlling armed Shi’ite militias inside these countries.

Taking over Lebanon, a weak state 

Hezbollah gained extra-territorial status in Lebanon under the Ta’if Agreement of 1989, which ended the bloody Lebanese civil war. The agreement allowed Hezbollah to be the only armed power in Lebanon except for the Lebanese Armed Forces. After Israel left Lebanon in 2000, and following the war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, the group successfully rebranded itself as the “protector of Lebanon” and the only force that can effectively counter supposed “Israeli aggression”.

Hezbollah has since become a semi-state body, exploiting the fundamental structural weakness of the Lebanese state, where the government is controlled by external countries – such as Saudi Arabia and Iran – and the population is heavily divided on ethnic and religious grounds. Hezbollah runs multiple social, education and health-related institutions and these are independent of the government – since it is externally sponsored by Iran (to the tune of at least US$700 million dollars a year) and also gains financing through international criminal activities, such as money laundering and drug trafficking.

Hezbollah increased its power in the elections held in early May 2018, further blurring the lines between the organisation and the state. Current Lebanese President Michel Aoun is affiliated with Hezbollah, as are senior government officials (such as the Minister for Public Health) and security apparatus commanders (such as Abbas Ibrahim, the head of General Security Directorate). Intelligence reports allege that Hezbollah’s “Unit 900” successfully recruited or planted dozens of operatives in key Lebanese governmental and economic institutions, and among senior commanders of the Lebanese army.

Tunnel vision

Central to the Iranian grand strategy to set up a Shi’ite controlled corridor across the Middle East is to nurture Hezbollah as a genuine threat to Teheran’s key nemesis, Israel. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, has been seeking new ways to improve the offensive abilities of his organisation, implementing lessons learnt from past altercations with Israel, as well as from combat operations in Syria. Despite losing more than 2,000 fighters on Syrian soil, with as many as four times that number injured, Hezbollah gained valuable knowledge in full-scale warfare, and with Iranian funding, recruited new soldiers and restocked its armouries with the latest weapons.

Hezbollah has also been following closely the conflict around Gaza, where Israel and Hamas have been constantly clashing since the Palestinian terrorist organisation took control of the Strip in a coup in 2007. Like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah has dug an extensive network of underground tunnels in south Lebanon, connecting more than 100 Shi’ite villages that have been transformed into fully operational military compounds for Hezbollah. The aim is to challenge any Israeli ground manoeuvres in case of an incursion into Lebanon, and shield Hezbollah operations from Israeli airstrikes.

Emulating Hamas’ terror tunnels, Hezbollah has now been shown to have secretly built several well-equipped and heavily fortified attack tunnels that stretch from within Lebanon into Israeli territory. The tunnels were supposed to be used in Hezbollah’s “conquest of the Galilee” attack plan. The idea was to move the fighting into Israeli territory, forcing Israel to allocate soldiers to tackle Hezbollah within Israel at the expense of its military power inside Lebanon, sow panic and anger inside Israel, and provide a major propaganda achievement to trumpet to the Arab world.

Leading the charge would be special guerrilla forces of the Radwan Unit, trained to infiltrate behind enemy lines, along with Hezbollah’s Unit 133 specialising in terrorist attacks, as well as the al-Nujba militia made up of Iraqi Shi’ites, which is currently operating on the Syrian side of the Golan border. These forces combined, according to the plan, would crawl through the tunnels and once in Israel, spread terror, hijacking and killing civilian Israeli populations, while attacking and paralysing Israeli military bases in the north.

Hezbollah appears to have attached great importance to the clandestine attack tunnel project, investing major planning and construction resources into digging deep into the hard, rocky mountainous ground of the area (which is much more difficult than digging through the soft sand surrounding Gaza).

Both Iranian and Hezbollah forces have recently been perfecting their military tunnel digging skills in Yemen, assisting Houthi rebels to build elaborate tunnel infrastructure in the Al Hudaydah area.

A major contractor involved in the tunnel project is the Iranian-funded Lebanese construction company Jihad al Bina’ (“holy war through construction”).

Satellite image of the missile upgrade factories in Beirut

This company was used to rebuild neighbourhoods destroyed in the 2006 Lebanon war, as well as installing water and electricity services, paving roads and preparing land for farmers and forests in southern Lebanon. But working for its bosses in Teheran, Jihad al-Bina’ is also engaged in the conscription of militiamen and the creation of military infrastructure.

It erected the Hezbollah surveillance outposts along the border with Israel, used by an allegedly environmental group “Green without Borders” – actually a front for Hezbollah. Jihad al-Bina’ has also now started operating inside Syria, in and around the city of Aleppo, and in areas close to the Syrian-Iraqi border (Al Bukamal and Dier Al-Zour). In May 2018 the company arranged a convoy from Iraq to Syria, supposedly for humanitarian purposes, but more likely as cover for moving arms. Jihad al-Bina’s offices in Syria are likely a part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) effort to build a Syrian version of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has been armed to the teeth with an estimated 130,000 different types of rockets of various ranges. In its war plan, firing rockets, which have the range to reach any point inside Israel, is meant to draw attention away from the guerrillas crawling underground towards the Galilee, while hitting both strategic targets and spreading civilian fear and chaos.

Neutralising Hezbollah’s invasion plan into the Galilee by exposing and destroying the tunnels is the object of Israel’s “Operation Northern Shield” launched on Dec. 5, 2018. Yet even before that, Israel had been constructing a new fortified and highly sophisticated concrete and barbed wire wall, 12 metres high, along its northern border with Lebanon to forestall expected cross-border infiltration attempts by Hezbollah.

Flying direct Teheran-Beirut

Until recently, Iranian arms supplies to Hezbollah were sent to Syria and then overland to Lebanon. Yet recurring Israeli attacks on the Damascus airport and on arms convoys in Syria have forced the Iranians to rethink their shipment methods. Russia, the most influential power in Syria following their crucial support of the Assad regime, has also worried about the possible negative impact the Iran-Israel conflict in Syria was having on Moscow’s goals there. Hence, Iran reverted to smuggling weapons via hidden underground tunnels along the Syrian-Lebanese border and using Iraqi airline flights as cover for additional consignments.

Lately, the IRGC has apparently decided to see if Western intelligence organisations could detect a new airborne shipment route direct from Iran to Beirut. On July 9, a Fars Air Qeshm Boeing 747 freighter departed a military airfield in Teheran, stopping at Damascus airport and then continued in an “uncharacteristic flight route” over northern Lebanon and southwards to Beirut. A second flight on Aug. 2 went directly from Teheran to Beirut on a circuitous route over Turkey, approaching Lebanon from the west over the sea.

An “uncharacteristic flight route” for an Iranian air freighter from Damascus to Beirut, as recorded by the flightradar24 website

The Sept. 17 incident where Syrian forces shot down a Russian military plane following an Israeli raid in Syria turned out to be the development Teheran was waiting for. Frantically shooting everywhere during an Israeli air raid on the Damascus airport, Syrian air defence shot down a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 reconnaissance plane returning to Khmeimim Air Base with their ageing S-200 anti-aircraft battery. 15 Russians died. Moscow was furious and blamed Jerusalem for an intentionally belated notification of its attack in Syria via the Israeli-Russian coordination mechanism. Israel vehemently denied the allegations, but to no avail. The Russians decided to “punish” the Israelis by limiting their freedom of action to operate their air force above Syria by supplying Damascus with the modern and sophisticated S-300 air defence system. Since then, the number of Israeli airborne attacks in Syria has dropped dramatically.

Feeling emboldened by the new Russian “umbrella”, a direct flight Fars Air Qeshm landed on November 29 at Hariri Airport in Beirut.

The Upgraded Missiles Project

The aeroplane is suspected to have been carrying technology destined for new factories operated by Hezbollah and Iranian officers in the heart of Beirut. Exposed by Israeli PM Netanyahu in his speech at the UN General Assembly on Sept, 27, these factories are designed to upgrade Hezbollah’s rockets with precision guidance systems thanks to Iranian-supplied GPS components. So far only a couple of dozens of missiles out of Hezbollah’s huge arsenal can hit a target with any precision, the rest are unguided “dumb” rockets (during the 2006 war most Hezbollah rockets landed in vacant land).

Jerusalem considers the rocket precision upgrades project a “red line” and a strategic threat. If completed, it would make Israeli bases, sensitive sites and civilian populations much more vulnerable to a damaging Hezbollah missile attack, despite Israeli’s missile defence systems. Israeli PM Netanyahu has been using all possible channels to warn Iran and Lebanon to dismantle the factories, or else.

This threat is not limited to Israel. It is a gross violation of international law. Both the tunnels and the arming of Hezbollah directly breach UN Security Council resolution 1701 (2006), which calls for “Disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon” and no armed forces other than UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army south of the Litani River (which passes about 30 kilometres north of the Israel-Lebanon border).

Furthermore, the Hezbollah precedent suggests Iran might proliferate missile guidance knowledge to the numerous other terrorist groups and militias it supports.

One thing Canberra should do to help address this increasing threat is to list Hezbollah as a whole, not just it’s so-called “external security organisation”, as a terrorist organisation under Australian law.

Dr. Ran Porat is a researcher and lecturer at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Monash University and a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel.