Hizballah is a uniquely independent organization functioning in a very complex and difficult environment. This is an essential principle for any understanding of its behavior. Hizballah is not an agent of Iran or an extension of Syrian intelligence. It has its own beliefs and worldview, its own calculations and priorities, its own fears and concerns, and its own aspirations and objectives.
Hizballah operates in a theater where four immediate forces provide the coordinates within which it has to survive and fulfill its purpose. These are: Syria, Iran, official Lebanon, and the wider Lebanese society. The backdrop to this is Shiite Islam and its systems of belief and modes of conduct. Beyond those four immediate forces are the Palestinian scene and the Arab world and its moods. Then come international considerations, especially those pertaining to the US and Europe. Israel is the defined enemy and as such whatever it does, or doesn’t do, is of direct impact.
Hizballah has to closely monitor the interplay of the four forces and seriously consider the needs, interests, concerns, priorities, policies and predicaments of each, and their interactions with each other. It has to adjust promptly to any changes in these factors and to position itself such that it does not threaten or appear to threaten those powerful parties. Not being a state actor, and possessing relatively meager resources, Hizballah is not in a position to provoke or confront these forces. It has to carefully calculate its behavior and its impact on its surroundings.
Part of the success story of Hizballah has been its ability to juggle these forces and keep them relatively docile. In the past there were many occasions on which Hizballah found itself in confrontation with one or a combination of these parties: with Syria in the "war of the camps" between Amal and the Palestinians; with Iran concerning which camp in Iran to ally itself with; with the Lebanese Army during the Amin Gemayel presidency; and with Lebanese society after the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon.
Through an exact reading of the political situation, a keen eye for openings and opportunities, a deep appreciation of reality and what is possible, and very sophisticated political maneuvering, Hizballah managed to survive these near confrontations and each time was able to strengthen its links with the party it was about to fall out with. It paid a price through minor splits in its ranks, but on the whole emerged much strengthened.
Decision-making in Hizballah is truly collective and very much in tune with its highly disciplined rank and file. This process accommodates the various tendencies in the movement. The Syrian tendency, the Iranian tendency, the Lebanese Army and state tendency, and the one sensitive to local Shiite needs and the wider Lebanese considerations–all coexist and take part in formulating policies and executing decisions. There is often a degree of tension among these various constituencies, but such tensions are usually contained and subjugated to the higher interests of the party. This decision-making mechanism is presided over by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who beyond his fiery words is a very cautious, rational, calculating, measured, and pragmatic leader who not only knows the weaknesses of his enemy but also the limits of his and his party’s power.
Having reached a decision that a confrontation with Damascus is not in the interest of the party or its cause, Hizballah adopted the policy of engaging the Syrians on all fronts. With its highly refined cadres and an acute sensitivity to Syrian interests and concerns, Hizballah managed to create a process of open and continuous dialogue with the various power centers in Damascus. Through this ongoing engagement, policies and their execution are coordinated in a fashion that takes into account both parties’ interests and does not disrupt their strategies. In the context of this process Hizballah managed to carve a space for itself where it can operate with a high degree of independence. In a very interesting way Hizballah’s relations with Damascus are becoming not very dissimilar from Israel’s relations with the United States, with some very obvious differences.
Regarding Iran, an important source of material backing for Hizballah, the party has reached a modus vivendi with the various factions in the ruling elite. It is not a secret that there are elements in the Iranian political system that are not very fond of Hizballah, and even less so of Iran’s relations with the organization. In the past Hizballah suffered from Iranian "misreadings" of the situation in its zone of operation and had to put up with misjudged Iranian "interference" in its policies.
Most of these disturbances have been successfully dealt with and the relationship now is "quieter" and somewhat smoother. Iranian marja’eyah remains the source of authority for the Shiite leadership of Hizballah. This puts Iran in a unique position of influence on the party but need not define every aspect of its policies. It would be interesting to see how Hizballah evolves with the restoration of the Iraqi Shiite marja’eyah that is not only Arab but also has some serious differences with the dominant faction of the Iranian one.
In dealing with official Lebanon, Hizballah learned from the experience of the parties that operated in South Lebanon, including itself. Instead of provoking the Lebanese state and army and highlighting their weaknesses, the party adopted a policy of reassuring the state, respecting the army, giving the impression of coordinating its actions with officialdom, and instead of posing as an alternative authority recognizing the state as the sole source of jurisdiction even in areas under its own control. It not only used a perhaps momentary national consensus, but also expanded that consensus and provided it with a sense of permanence without which it would be difficult for the party to operate.
By taking part in the political process in Lebanon and running for office, Hizballah achieved further goals and sent many messages. It reassured the elements in society, perhaps the majority, who were afraid of purely militaristic parties by demonstrating its willingness and ability to play the political game a la Libanaise. It clearly registered its political size for those who were still questioning its representational power. It accepted the democratic principle of rule by majority vote, implicitly recognizing that the majority will ultimately determine the nature and role of Hizballah in future configurations. And it used its new platform to further widen its net and attempt to engage segments of society it could not reach before.