Interview with Dr. Matthew Levitt, Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy about the recent political development of Hezbollah.

Dr. Matthew Levitt at the Conference on Counter-Terrorism, Herzliya 2013

Dr. Matthew Levitt at the Conference on Counter-Terrorism, Herzliya 2013

Janis Just: Since Hassan Rouhani has become the new president of Iran, many in Europe are eager to acknowledge a new and moderate face of Iran as an outcome of the elections. What can the West expect – truly a structural change or rather a less aggressive figure with aims similar to his predecessor?

Matthew Levitt: Hassan Rouhani is not the first Iranian so-called moderate to win the presidency. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who was elected in 1989, and Muhammad Khatami were frequently described as moderate as well. According to U.S. intelligence, however, Rafsanjani oversaw a long string of terrorist plots during his eight years in office. About a year into his presidency the CIA assessed that Tehran continues to view the selective use of terrorism as a legitimate political tool.

What will be the outcome for the Iran-sponsored terror groups?

The CIA for example assessed that Khatami would have been unable to withdraw Iran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah even if he had wanted to. Regardless of how Rouhani’s election might affect the nuclear impasse, the Islamic Republic’s history indicates that ostensibly reformist presidents do not translate into moderation of Iran’s terrorism sponsorship. With a possible nuclear deal, perhaps this will translate into a less aggressive Iran, but structurally, control of Hezbollah and Iran’s Qud’s force is outside of Rouhani’s control.

How would you describe the political situation of Hezbollah in 2013; Can the involvement as an actor in Syria`s civil war be seen as a demonstration of power in the Middle East?

Hezbollah’s destabilizing activities in Syria since the country’s uprising began in 2011 have, as a journalist in Lebanon put it, “torn away the party’s mask of virtue.” By siding with the Assad regime, its Alawite supporters, and Iran, as well as taking up arms against Sunni rebels, Hezbollah has placed itself at the epicenter of a sectarian conflict that has nothing to do with the group’s purported raison d’etre: the resistance to Israeli occupation. The implication is clear: Lebanon’s Party of God is no longer a pure “Islamic Resistance” fighting Israel, but a sectarian militia and Iranian proxy doing Assad and Khamenei’s bidding at the expense of fellow Muslims.

How are Hezbollah`s actions received within the pro-Hezbollah population in Lebanon?

For a group that has always portrayed itself as the vanguard standing up for the dispossessed in the face of injustice, and that has always tried to downplay its sectarian and pro-Iranian identities, supporting a brutal Alawite regime against the predominantly Sunni Syrian opposition risks shattering a long-cultivated image. Hezbollah is now emphasizing the need to protect fellow Shias in order for the pro-Hezbollah base to continue to strongly support the leadership.

What is the future for Hezbollah in case Assad will loose his influence on strategically important areas?

Hezbollah is keen to make sure that air and land corridors remain open for the delivery of weapons, cash and other materials from Tehran. Until the Syrian civil war, Iranian aircraft would fly into Damascus International Airport where their cargo would be loaded onto Syrian military trucks and escorted into Lebanon for delivery to Hezbollah. Now, Hezbollah is desperate to either secure the Assad regime, its control of the airport and the roads to Lebanon or, at a minimum, establish firm Alawi control of the coastal areas so Hezbollah can receive shipments through the air and sea ports in Latakia. If Assad wins, Hezbollah no longer has the sympathy of the majority Sunni Arab world, will be isolated, and therefore be more reliant than ever on Iran and the Assad regime. Further, they will have to deal with the delicate sectarian issues and consequences at home, which have been relatively stable, but could be altered since the Sunni population will likely not accept an emboldened Hezbollah. On the other hand, if Hezbollah does not win, they will still be hated by the majority of the Sunni Arab world, but would also lose a strategic ally and thorough way for obtaining weapons from Iran. It is also possible that in such a desperate scenario they could rely more on spectacular terror due to a loss of power and prestige. Either way, the war in Syria has exposed Hezbollah for whom they truly are.

Hezbollah is not only acting against its foes in the neighborhood. What are the possible international implications?

Hezbollah is not ten feet tall, and has taken significant losses in Syria, but it remains a capable adversary.  It could fire rockets at Israel, but its global networks are equally capable and could execute terrorist attacks targeting Israeli or western interests. Last July, Hezbollah blew up a bus of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria and nearly pulled off a similar plot in Cyprus that same month.  In May, Hezbollah agents with considerable amounts of weapons were discovered in Nigeria alleged to be targeting Israeli and Western interests. And a Swedish Hezbollah operative is currently on trial for terrorist activities in Thailand.  In light of these and other plots, the U.S. government has described Hezbollah as an expansive global network, that sends money and operatives to carry out terrorist attacks around the world.

How can the organization survive financially conducting all these global operations? 

Hezbollah gets around $200 million a year from Iran, sometimes more sometimes less, and then on top of that raises many millions of dollars a year through charitable front organizations and organized criminal enterprises around the world.  From Cigarette smuggling to credit card fraud to counterfeit currency, goods and drugs – and even in the transportation of narcotics and money laundering –  Hezbollah raises a tremendous amount of money for its activities at home in Lebanon and abroad.

Considering the current Egyptian government`s actions against Sinai´s Islamists and Hamas in Gaza, the heavy involvement of Hezbollah in Syria and the international concern regarding Syria´s chemical weapons – has it not turned out to be a successful year for Israel´s security as its enemies are busy or diminishing themselves?

Overall it has been a relatively successful year for Israel’s security in terms of actual attacks. In August four Israeli soldiers were injured during a patrol on the Lebanese border that Hezbollah took credit for. Rockets from Gaza, the Sinai, Southern Lebanon, and the Golan heights have all landed in Israeli territory, fortunately without injuries. Operation Pillar of Defense was a success against a now weakened Hamas with Iron Dome playing a significant role in thwarting rocket attacks. However, aside from the eight day November 2012 war, Israel has also felt the need to be proactive against several other players in the region, quietly conducting one strike in Sudan, another in Lebanon, and four separate strikes in Syria to prevent the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah that would create even greater security concerns than the large arsenal of rockets Hezbollah already possesses. While Iran has a new President, a strike on Iran is still very much on the table should Israel’s redline be crossed, and still very much a threat. If the US is able to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons through negotiations that will only eliminate one type of threat Israel is potentially facing. The Syria crisis is far from over with spillover increasing the general volatility of region that is already experiencing extremely high levels of sectarian tension. Israel has successfully defended itself, but it remains in an extremely dangerous part of the world, with several competing sources of possible threats.

Janis Just: Thank you very much for the interview, Dr. Levitt!