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Old ties exist between Iran and Lebanon's Shiites.

Byline: Sadegh Zibakalam

Summary: Contrary to common perceptions, Iranian involvement in Lebanon did not begin with the Islamic Revolution in 1979. First contact between Iranian Shiites and Lebanese Shiites was established at the beginning of the 16th century when some of the senior Lebanese Shiite ulama, or clergy, were invited to Iran by the newly established and powerful Safavid dynasty.

Contrary to common perceptions, Iranian involvement in Lebanon did not begin with the Islamic Revolution in 1979. First contact between Iranian Shiites and Lebanese Shiites was established at the beginning of the 16th century when some of the senior Lebanese Shiite ulama, or clergy, were invited to Iran by the newly established and powerful Safavid dynasty.

The Safavid rulers converted Iranians to Shiism and made it the official religion in Iran. They invited Shiite scholars from Oman, Yemen and Lebanon to help them construct the theoretical framework for a Shiite state in a country where Shiism had hitherto been only a minority sect. Jabal Ameli and Sadr were two senior Shiite scholars who went to Iran from Lebanon and stayed at the Safavid court for many years.

During the ensuing centuries, hundreds of Lebanese Shiite scholars and seminary students traveled to Iran to study Shiite jurisprudence. They mainly resided in the holy city of Qom, which gradually became the center for Shiite study in Iran. Many married into Iranian families. The Iranian rulers didn't interfere with the presence of Lebanese seminary students or scholars in Qom since they never got involved in domestic Iranian politics. Indeed, it was not only in Iran that the Lebanese Shiite scholars shunned politics; the same pattern was evident in Lebanon as well. In short, the Lebanese Shiite leaders were tolerated and were financially supported both by the Iranian ulama and by the Iranian regime, all the way through the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

First political contacts between Iranian and Lebanese Shiites were established during the late 1960s by Mustafa Chamran, a physics PhD from Harvard University and a leading figure in the Iranian Islamic Student Movement in the United States that vehemently opposed the shah's regime. Militant opponents of the shah during that period normally joined Palestinian groups to receive military training for the armed struggle against the regime in Iran.

With the assistance of Lebanese Shiite leader Imam Musa Sadr, Chamran established the Amal organization. With generous financial help from the Shiite ulama in Qom, Amal supported poor, uneducated and unemployed Lebanese Shiite youth. During its early phase, Amal acted as a charity organization for poor and downtrodden Lebanese Shiites that no Arab regime or charity institution was prepared to care for. Chamran, however, didn't perceive Amal as merely a charitable institution. He cultivated the seeds of radical Shiite ideas among Amal members as well as providing some with military training. His "disciples" formed the genesis of the Lebanese Hizbullah.

Chamran subsequently came to Iran during the revolutionary upheavals of 1978-1979, bringing with him dozens of his Lebanese Shiite disciples. They assisted in forming the Revolutionary Guards in 1979 shortly after the fall of the shah. More Amal and Hizbullah cadres came to Iran after the revolution. Chamran was appointed minister of defense a few months after the revolution and led the fighting against the Kurdish armed uprising that challenged the newly formed Islamic regime in Iran.

Saddam Hussein's attack on Iran in September 1980 and the subsequent war with Iraq further strengthened the position of Chamran within the Islamic regime. He was trusted deeply by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other Iranian revolutionary leaders. Chamran's Hizbullah "brothers" were with him both in the fighting in Kurdistan and during the early stages of the war with Iraq.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Lebanese Shiites came to Iran. Some went to Qom to study jurisprudence, some to university, and many more joined the Revolutionary Guards to receive military training. Among those who went to Qom was a teenager called Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

The arrival of Revolutionary Guard figures to Lebanon was the next stage of Iranian involvement there and went surprisingly unnoticed both by the Americans and Israelis. The latter were so concerned with the Palestinian presence in Lebanon and the perceived security threat it entailed for Israel that they completely failed to see the steady rise of Hizbullah in the South of Lebanon and the Bekaa. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization proved to be a blessing in disguise for Hizbullah. The vacuum created by the PLO departure from the South enabled Hizbullah, with Iranian assistance, to establish a state within a state in South Lebanon.

Iranian involvement in Lebanon through Hizbullah seeks two fundamental objectives. The first is an extension of the long historical religious relationship between the two countries. The second is more complicated. For reasons that go beyond this analysis, Iran's leaders perceive an existential threat from the US and its regional ally Israel. To counterbalance that threat, Tehran has prudently decided to invest heavily among the Lebanese Shiites and use them as an effective "defense mechanism" against the US and Israel. The 34-day war in 2006 between Israel and Hizbullah demonstrated that the Iranian leaders have had some success in transforming Lebanese Shiites into an effective military force against Israel. In the words of a hard-line Iranian leader at the end of the war, "Islamic Iran demonstrated to all its enemies, particularly the Americans and Zionists, that if they came to Iraq and Afghanistan to impose military threats against us, we too have moved close to Israel to impose the same threat upon the enemies of Islam."

Strange as it may sound, Iranian involvement in Lebanon is first and foremost a defensive strategy adopted by the Iranian leaders against their powerful enemy, the United States. This leads us to an important question: If the Iranian leaders one day feel that the US is not seeking their overthrow, would they still insist on involvement in Lebanon?

Sadegh Zibakalam is a professor of Iranian studies at Tehran University. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter that publishes commentaries on Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Jun 17, 2008
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