Iran has declared that it has concluded its official retaliation for the death of former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani with a largely symbolic missile strike on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces.
However, it now remains to be seen how its "Axis of Resistance" will react, particularly Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
While eulogizing Soleimani, the group’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah essentially declared open-ended war on all American forces throughout the Middle East, irrespective of an Iranian retaliation. But despite Nasrallah’s bellicosity, Hezbollah is too constrained by domestic factors to directly retaliate against U.S. forces. Indirect attacks are more likely.
In his most recent remarks, Nasrallah conspicuously failed to commit his group to leading the retaliatory fight against U.S. forces. Instead, he stressed that Soleimani’s death was an attack on the entire Resistance Axis, not just Iran or any one faction. He also included an important caveat: stressing Iran wouldn’t demand a response from its proxies, he noted that "the forces of the Resistance Axis must [each] decide [for themselves], how will they deal with this event? How will they handle this event?"
That concession to pragmatism is particularly vital for Hezbollah. For almost three months, Lebanon has been gripped by an uprising against its ruling political class. While this would-be revolution doesn’t directly threaten Hezbollah, it has virtually paralyzed Lebanon, catalyzing its economic collapse.
As the crisis continues, unemployment is expected to rise exponentially, the Lebanese pound has unofficially become unpegged from the dollar, and even basic foodstuffs are becoming unaffordable. Unchecked, these developments could further fuel the current state of civil unrest, potentially leading to widespread violence. The crisis has also begun affecting neighboring Syria, where Hezbollah has increasingly deepening interests.
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Hezbollah can’t sustain growth in such an unstable environment, thus – since the onset of the October 17 uprising – Nasrallah has repeatedly expressed his group’s fear of Lebanon’s impending economic collapse. The group has therefore spared no effort – alternating between feigned conciliation, propaganda, harassment, and even violence – to end the protests. It has even acquiesced to forming an ostensibly purely technocratic government – albeit one headed by a political ally, Hassan Diab – all to restore a semblance of Lebanese normalcy, where the economy would resume at least limping along.
But Lebanon’s fragility will continue beyond the formation of a new government, limiting Hezbollah’s direct retaliatory options. Diab’s efforts to revive Lebanon’s economy will be difficult enough – due to his lack of broad domestic, particularly Sunni, legitimacy – without the impact on Lebanon of open Hezbollah-U.S. conflict. The group will therefore be forced to delicately balance its commitments to the broader "Resistance Axis" with its need to maintain its base country’s stability.
The group must also consider that the United States could retaliate against any Hezbollah attack with economic sanctions on Lebanon itself, bringing about the group’s nightmare scenario of total Lebanese economic collapse.
The Trump administration has already signaled its readiness to levy sanctions against Iraq over potential fallout from Soleimani’s death, and would likely also not hesitate in levying penalties against Beirut, where Hezbollah possesses significant political influence. Pro-Western Saad Hariri’s departure from the helm of government makes this more likely. His replacement with the Hezbollah-aligned Diab would makes it more likely that Washington could discard its long-standing distinction between Hezbollah and "official Lebanon" if the group attacks American forces.
However, these constraints don’t preclude actions untraceable to Hezbollah, and the group already has several models of anonymous actions from its militant history as precedent.
During the 1980s, an embryonic – and thus fragile – Hezbollah attacked Americans in Lebanon and abroad over U.S. support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. But to avoid being crippled by American retaliation, it did so under the guise of ostensibly diffuse pseudonymous groups – like Islamic Jihad, the Revolutionary Justice Organization, and the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth.
To this day, Hezbollah continues to deny responsibility for those attacks, despite many of their perpetrators – like Imad Mughniyeh and Mustafa Badreddine – reemerging as key leaders within the group.
Hezbollah employed similar subterfuge during the 1990s. In 1991, it officially ended its attacks on U.S. targets. However, rather than completely halt its anti-American operations, Hezbollah merely shifted to contracting out its attacks on American targets to external, seemingly unconnected actors.
Its goal was two-fold: to avoid a crackdown by Hafez Assad’s Syria, then controlling Lebanon and attempting a rapprochement with Washington; and to buttress its bona fides as a mere Lebanese resistance organization fighting the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, to avoid international terror designations.
It also hid behind a veil of anonymity to target U.S. forces in Iraq during the Bush administration. Prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion, Nasrallah "predicted" the Iraqi people would bog down American forces in a fiery insurgency that would mark the "beginning…of the end of American world domination."
In all three instances, Hezbollah was thus able to attack U.S. targets while incurring little to no negative repercussions for itself or Lebanon. With the added benefit of this plausible deniability, the organization also successfully hampered U.S. intelligence efforts and blunted the impact of potential retaliation.
The past days have already seen such random, small, or previously unknown organizations emerge vowing to avenge Soleimani’s death. This includes the long-dormant Hezbollah al-Hejaz, which carried out the 1996 Khobar Tower bombings in Saudi Arabia with aid and training from Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
As Iran’s vanguard proxy, Hezbollah will doubtlessly participate in avenging Soleimani’s death. However, the group has never been so blinded by its militancy or ideological goals as to invite destruction upon itself.
If attacks were traced back Hezbollah, the United States could employ sanctions against Lebanon, that – given the country’s current unprecedented fragility – could seriously weaken the Party of God.
Instead, Hezbollah will likely act anonymously, through seemingly unconnected groups that will provide it – and Iran – with layers of deniability, in order to escape any American retaliation.
David Daoud is a research analyst on Lebanon and Hezbollah at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). Twitter: @DavidADaoud