Who decides Hezbollah’s decision for war: Nasrallah, Khamenei or both?

According to Khomeinist doctrine, Iran’s supreme leader is the sole person to decide on war or peace. But, have things changed with the emergence of Hezbollah?

Hezbollah fans carrying posters of Ali Khameini and Hassan Nasrallah (Credit: AFP)

Who will determine whether Hezbollah fully joins the conflict along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel? Will the decision come from the party itself or from Tehran?

The extent of autonomy held by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vi-à-vis Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains ambiguous.

However, historical events and regional developments in recent years provide some indications that can help anticipate certain dynamics.

The bond between Hezbollah, which was created in 1982 in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and Iran is based on religious authority, or what is known as velayat-e faqih — “guardianship of the Islamic jurist.” This principle advocates for the establishment of an Islamic state. Iran’s supreme leader is at the head of this authority.

“According to Shiite jurisprudence, every Muslim must obey the orders of the velayat-e faqih,” reads a statement on Khamenei’s official website.

Allegiance to the ayatollah transcends national, political, or geographical affiliations.

Nasrallah, who studied in the Iranian city of Qom, has openly acknowledged this dynamic.

“What is the source of strength within us? What is Hezbollah’s secret?” Nassrallah was quoted as saying in the book as quoted in the book “Les fondements religieux du pouvoir politique dans la République islamique d'Iran” (“The Religious Foundations of Political Power in the Islamic Republic of Iran) by Hassan Diab al-Harake, an expert on political Islam.

“The power lies in obedience to Khamenei’s rule,” the quote continues. “The secret of our strength, our growth, our struggle, and our martyrs lies in velayat-e faqih, the spinal cord of Hezbollah.”

According to this doctrine, the Iranian supreme leader embodies both the political and religious authority and is seen as the heir to the Prophet and the Imams. He is the custodian of the Islamic nation.

The supreme leader, or ayatollah, decides on war and peace — as well as the “rules of jihad” for Shiite dignitaries.

In theory, Nasrallah must obey the supreme leader, who is responsible for assessing, ordering and sanctioning any military interventions.

Tehran also provides Hezbollah with funds, equipment, military training and information.

However, Hezbollah’s evolution during the 1990s and 2000s, transitioning from a small underground militia to a legitimate political party integrated into national institutions and eventually equipped with a formidable military strike force, has also established it as a significant Lebanese player.

The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005, following nearly three decades of occupation, left a void that Hezbollah quickly filled, marking a significant phase of “Lebanese-ation.”

Although it continues to adhere to the overarching directives from Tehran, Hezbollah now enjoys a certain degree of internal autonomy.

“Lebanese alliances, dynamics and policy decisions are made at home,” said Hanin Ghaddar, a researcher at the Washington Institute and author of “Hezbollahland: Mapping Dahiya and Lebanon’s Shia Community.”

This empowerment does not mean, however, that the party “is in conflict with Iran,” according to Joseph Daher, a professor at the University of Lausanne who has also studied the group. “The more Hezbollah grows in strength, the more it serves Iran’s interests, and vice versa.”

Hezbollah is becoming a model of success for Iran’s expansion and export of its ideologies.

Senior advisor

The July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah is clear evidence of the evolution of relations between Iran, and a militia that has become fully developed.

On July 12 that year, Hezbollah engaged in the conflict with Israel following rocket attacks from the Lebanese border area and a Hezbollah commando incursion into Israeli-controlled territories. Hezbollah appeared to have made the decision to go to war, although not all the details surrounding the event have been fully disclosed.

“The main officer involved was Imad Moghnieh,”a former Hezbollah military chief assassinated in Damascus on Feb. 12, 2008, according to Ghaddar. Moghnieh was “a trusted figure within the Iranian apparatus, who was still trying at the time to get to know the region better and carve out a place for himself.”

Tehran, however, fully engaged in the 2006 conflict at a later stage.

“The Iranians became involved in support and advisory work once the war was underway,” said Alex Vatanka, Director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute.

In a 2019 interview with Iranian state television, Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force] a division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), disclosed previously unrevealed details about his role as a coordinator and intermediary during his time in Lebanon throughout the 34-day 2006 conflict. Soleimani was later killed by a US drone strike in Iraq in January 2020.

Today, however, the context is completely different than 2006. Undermined by an economic crisis and turmoil at home, the Iranian regime is struggling to survive.

On the Lebanese side, the shadow of the 2006 conflict, the scars of the 1975-90 Civil War, the ongoing socio-economic collapse since 2019, and the increasing political isolation of Hezbollah may dissuade Nasrallahs from embarking on another risky military venture.

This is true even if Hezbollah is better equipped for war today than it did in 2006.

The party’s military capabilities and on-the-ground expertise were significantly enhanced by its involvement in Syria, supporting Bashar al-Assad’s forces from 2013 onwards.

Furthermore, Nasrallah’s influence outside Lebanon expanded following the assassination of Soleimani in 2020.

Nasrallah has become “the most influential Arab voice in Tehran,” according to Vatanka.

After Moghnieh and Soleimani, Nasrallah is the trusted man when it comes to the Iranian axis’ regional affairs.

“He is the top advisor on everything, including the Lebanese border, even though he doesn’t make the final decision,” Ghaddar said. “He is a high-ranking officer but not the boss.”

To what extent does this power of influence grant Nasrallah a veto right in major strategic matters involving Lebanon?

“Operational decisions fall under the IRGC and the Quds Force,” Vatanka said. “Thanks to their actions on the ground in the region, they have the ability to influence Khamenei’s strategic decisions in the direction they prefer.”

These subtle dynamics of influence are nearly imperceptible from the outside.

“We don’t exactly know which agencies and interest groups are taking actions that fundamentally predetermine the options available to Khamenei,” Vatanka said.

Nasrallah is currently one of the key figures “capable of influencing decisions, providing counsel either in favor or against [such decisions],” Ghaddar said.

However, his rise in influence in Tehran is more aligned with a form of “soft power" over the long term, as opposed to being an independent decision-making entity.

In cases of disagreement or conflicting interests, the ultimate decision to engage in warfare, particularly, lies with Ali Khamenei.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub. 

Who will determine whether Hezbollah fully joins the conflict along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel? Will the decision come from the party itself or from Tehran?The extent of autonomy held by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vi-à-vis Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains ambiguous.However, historical events and regional developments in recent years provide some indications that...