When Hezbollah launched 19 rockets at Israel on Friday, it represented a significant escalation, at a time when Lebanon is in economic and political turmoil. Beirut can ill-afford a standoff given its negligent and ossified leadership.
But the latest volley is a reminder that rather than focusing on what plagues Lebanon the most, the Party of God has other priorities – namely running revolutionary interference for its patron, Iran.
The tempo and tenor of a series of incidents – the drone attack on the Mercer Street tanker, the temporary hijacking of another vessel, Palestinian militants firing rockets into northern Israel on Wednesday, and this latest Shebaa Farms episode – bear Tehran’s fingerprints, just as Ebrahim Raisi was inaugurated as Iran’s new president on Thursday. Raisi is not only the president of the Islamic Republic, but he is also a budding leader of its Axis of Resistance.
In what is becoming an emerging pattern, Palestinian militants in Lebanon have fired on Israel after its strikes in other theaters –namely Gaza and Syria.
During Operation Guardian of the Walls earlier this year, the Palestinian militants fired rockets at northern Israel as it faced off against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Hezbollah disclaimed any responsibility despite the tight control it maintains in southern Lebanon. Fast forward to July, a similar incident occurred, with Palestinian militants again firing rockets at Israel. The context was reported Israeli airstrikes hours earlier near Aleppo, Syria.
On Wednesday and Friday, there were no significant operations – in the public realm – that had just taken place in one of the Axis of Resistance’s other battlefields, as was the case in May and July. Instead, the context for the rocket attacks on Israel was international outcry over Iran’s attack on the Mercer Street vessel, which had killed two Europeans, sabre-rattling over holding Tehran accountable, and most critically: the inauguration of Raisi as president.
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Raisi is entirely unlike his immediate predecessor, Hassan Rohani. Rohani had come into office as a seasoned Iranian negotiator with contacts and connections in the West. Rohani had travelled the world trying to run interference for the Islamic Republic, as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator.
Raisi takes office with a very different record and exposure. His travel, to date, has been confined to regional countries with whom Iran has strong ties, namely Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. In fact, Raisi has taken great care to court Iran’s proxies and partners through his travel.
After he lost the presidential elections in 2017, Raisi was in the political wilderness – still helming Astan Quds Razavi, an economic and religious conglomerate in Iran – but awaiting promotion to more powerful roles. He spent some of his time visiting Lebanon and Syria, meeting with Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and others in January 2018.
While touring the border between Lebanon and Israel – where he was flanked by Hezbollah military commanders – Raisi proclaimed "Jerusalem’s liberation is near." He also referenced Hezbollah as being not only a military movement, but more importantly that "it must play a role in various and diverse tasks in building an Islamic culture."
This attention to building and strengthening ties with Iran’s regional militia network continued when Raisi became chief justice. In February 2021, he visited Iraq, and was given a reception akin to a head of state by Iran’s militias there. They saluted him as he was guided around by Falih Al-Fayyadh, the leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces.
After Raisi became president-elect, the Commander of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Abu Alaa al-Walae, gushed that Iran’s allies in Iraq "will have their best times" with him in the presidency.
Raisi definitively signalled his closeness to the Axis of Resistance when the Secretary-General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad Ziad al-Nakhalah, the head of Hamas’ Political Bureau Ismail Haniyeh; and the Deputy Secretary-General of Hezbollah Naim Qassem were given what looked like front-row seats at his inauguration. That illustrated their importance in his mindset – especially since the Deputy Secretary-General of the European Union’s External Action Service was seated in the row behind them.
This visual stood in contrast to the reception that then EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini received when she attended Hassan Rohani’s 2017 inauguration; she had one of the best seats in the house herself. Indeed, this point was driven home during Raisi’s speech where he spoke with emotion about the Axis of Resistance.
On Friday, the same day as Hezbollah’s rockets rained down on Israel, Raisi also managed to have personal meetings with Hezbollah’s Qassem, Hamas’ Haniyeh and other leading officials from Iran’s proxies and partners in the region.
On Saturday, the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Hossein Salami also met with Qassem, saying the rocket fire on Israel was a message to Israel’s new Prime Minister that the "equation of response has not changed."
While the Israel Defense Forces told reporters it didn’t believe Iran directly ordered Hezbollah to fire the rockets, the presence of Qassem in Tehran for Raisi’s inauguration, the closeness with which Raisi feels to the Axis of Resistance, and the attacks occurring during a barrage of Iranian escalation in the Middle East paints a more complex picture about how closely Iran is managing Hezbollah’s offensive actions against Israel.
Even as president, though, Raisi will not have direct control over Iran’s proxies and partners in the region. This is because the real Iranian leadership – Iran’s supreme leader and the cohort of Revolutionary Guard senior commanders who surround him – have the final word over regional policy; their leadership remains unchanged despite the inauguration; and the modus operandi of Iran’s proxies will remain largely intact.
Nevertheless, it is now apparent that Raisi is positioning himself as a leading contender to be Khamenei’s heir when the supreme leader passes from the scene. And as a part of this jockeying process, Raisi has carefully cultivated these extensions of Iran’s power.
The warmth with which President Raisi has been received by these proxies and partners, and the stronger tailwind he may offer them for more daring and dangerous actions, should not go unnoticed by the international community.