Men of the New Year

'The Prophet's Defender'

Facing waning local support for his movement, pressure from Tehran and the potential dethroning of his Syrian patron, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has emerged from his bunker with a burst of energy.

On Monday, Hezbollah secretary general Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah departed from routine and appeared in public, at a Beirut protest rally he staged to decry "Innocence of Muslims" - the film that has sparked a cascade of rage and opprobrium in the Muslim world. The Hezbollah chief blamed Israel and the United States for distributing the movie, and warned the Americans that the demonstrations against them around the world will escalate should they not pull the plug on it.

"The world must realize that our rage will not subside. This is just the start of a wave of global protest sponsored by all the Muslim peoples. The aim will be to defend the Prophet Mohammed's name," Nasrallah told the masses, who marched through Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut.

"They didn't understand," he continued, "that the way they depicted the Prophet would insult us. They need to realize that on behalf of Mohammed, we will spill our blood."

The Hezbollah leader also found a symbolic way to demonstrate his own willingness to sacrifice himself for Mohammed. After shunning public appearances for years, due to personal security concerns, he chose to appear at this rally (this was only his fifth public appearance in six years). To some extent, the moment Nasrallah decided to stage the protest and manifest what he called "our commitment to the prophet," he didn't have much choice and was compelled to leave his bunker. He knew that were he to issue such forthright declarations and warnings while in hiding, he would be scorned by critics in Lebanon.

Nasrallah became Hezbollah's secretary general in 1992, after being appointed directly by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He succeeded Abbas al-Musawi, who was assassinated by Israel, and, at 52, is one of the youngest leaders in the Middle East today. In recent weeks, Nasrallah has confronted unprecedented criticism of his organization, which challenges his leadership and undermines its status.

Calls to disarm

Like Nasrallah, in 1992 Hezbollah also became a central player in Lebanese society and politics. Indeed, Nasrallah managed to turn Hezbollah into an integral part of Lebanon's reality. No longer was it an organization that merely represented the state's weakest minority, the Shi'ites. Today, the Shi'ite Party of God is represented in the country's parliament and cabinet; it controls key appointments in the army and helps choose the prime minister.

Nasrallah's current predicament is related to the fact that his ally and second patron - after Khamenei - Syrian President Bashar Assad, is liable to be ousted in the near future. While the implications of regime change in Damascus are unclear, there are signs that the awe in which many Lebanese once held Syria and Hezbollah is steadily eroding. It could all but disappear if and when Assad loses power in Damascus.

Signs of such change can currently be seen on Lebanon's sociopolitical landscape. Lebanon's March 14 coalition is calling for Hezbollah to be disarmed. In tandem, that alliance is urging President Michel Sleiman to call on the UN Security Council to deploy UNIFIL peacekeeping forces as a buffer along the country's northeastern border. The consequences of such a deployment could be grave for Hezbollah, since the area serves as the conduit through which the organization receives most of its firearms.

For Nasrallah, this is also a year of decision, owing largely to his dependence upon Iran and its leader, Khamenei. Top figures in Iran are eager to use Hezbollah as a proxy to fight Tehran's battles in a scenario in which Iran is attacked by Israel. Under such circumstances, Iran's leadership would likely expect that the Lebanese Shi'ite organization fire its arsenal of missiles against Israel.

Meanwhile, Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, has announced that operatives from its Al Quds force are operating in Lebanon.

Thus, after cultivating for 20 years an independent "Lebanese" profile, Nasrallah now finds himself hedged in publicly by Tehran, and forced into the role of Iran's possible defender. In view of very explicit statements made on this subject - and also Hezbollah's total economic dependence upon Tehran - Nasrallah will have little option other than attacking Israel under a scenario of a Netanyahu-precipitated strike on Iran's nuclear installations. Any such Hezbollah attack would jeopardize the Shi'ite organization's survival, and also drag Lebanon into an arduous war that could ultimately undermine the stability of the country's fragile government.

Nasrallah is responding to the pressures with a burst of energy. He makes countless speeches and issues incendiary threats, hoping to come across as the "defender of Lebanon" in the eyes of the country's non-Shi'ite population. He is likely to step up this speechmaking in coming weeks. He has apparently taken on the role of "the Prophet Mohammed's defender," to reinforce his organization's public status. Yet it appears that verbal attacks leveled by Hezbollah critics will escalate - it's possible that Hezbollah could even end up in a violent engagement with extreme Sunni forces in Lebanon.

During similar predicaments in the past, Nasrallah attempted to extricate himself from public pressure by ratcheting up border tensions with Israel, sometimes via military actions such as kidnapping Israel Defense Forces soldiers (for example, the events of July 2006 which precipitated the Second Lebanon War ). This year, and not necessarily as a result of the leader's connections with Tehran, Hezbollah could try to deflect the public pressure it faces in Lebanon by directing energy against the "Zionist enemy" in the south.

In coming months, Nasrallah will be the figure who decides Lebanon's fate, and whether it will be one of quiet or war.