I wrote a little over a year ago about Hezbollah’s potential to free itself from Tehran’s control and become a slightly more autonomous agent. While the financial, logistical and material backing that Iran provides cannot be easily replaced, Hezbollah (or rather some leadership elements within) may have been satisfied to take less of the king’s money to do less of the king’s work, so to speak. Hezbollah is not without alternative, though lesser, means of supporting itself or hiring itself out.
All that talk of an independent Hezbollah seems to be out the window now, however. At the time I wrote the last article on it Imad Mughniyeh had only been dead for a few months and the fallout of his assassination was impossible for me to see at the time. I counted the possibility of an Israeli or Damascene assassination as very high (particularly Damascus, as car bombs are highly irregular and difficult for the Israelis to execute considering it would entirely burn whatever humint bridges involved agents would have built) did not associate his death with the factional movements within Hezbollah itself or the control game that goes on among Lebaneze regionalists, internal power factions and Tehran. This was a man with many prices on his head and his death was a predictable outcome of the life he had chosen to lead.
Whatever the reason for his assassination it seems to have been a tidal trigger which was part of a string of high and low profile personality eliminations which has seen Hezbollah undergo a significant period of restructuring and refocus. Whereas two years ago Hezbollah was trying to use its militant street cred and loud voice within the Islamic world to (somewhat ironically) promote itself as a renewed hope for a Lebanese nationalist movement, it has since begun to look much more like the Iranian tool that it was originally sponsored to be.
Whatever changes are going on inside Hezbollah and whatever civil and political aspirations some factions had previously held, Hezbollah is definitely not something Iran is going to let go of anytime soon. It seems that Tehran is allowing (or compelling) Hezbollah to ride the very edge of losing popularity for appearing too much an Iranian tool of destruction, effectively squandering its considerable level of regional appeal gained at the expense of the pounding of the most recent Israeli-Hezbollah war.
Tehran doesn’t want a highly popular Hezbollah which has the popular support and power to become a real political force of its own, it wants to keep Hezbollah as a useful tool of Iranian foreign policy as Iran lacks the capacity to project force outside of its own borders. The shufflings and eliminations we saw begin a few years ago are culminating in this return to a more closely held tool of Iranian policy, despite the efforts of the Israelis, Egyptians and even Saudis to the contrary. This helps explain a lot of what has happened in the region lately which had previously appeared very unclear and confusing to me — particularly the Saudi interest in the group which had for the first time extended to operational interference and direct cooperation with the Syrians.
[In retrospect it is interesting to re-read misinterpretations of Mughniyeh’s elimination as a singular event which were written at the time of his death. It is useful to compare them to my current interpretation of his assassination as one small part of a larger trend which has seen Hezbollah pulled back into a tighter Iranian orbit after its flirtation with independence after its popular support swelled as a result of the 2006 war with Israel.]