Last month, press reports and Israeli government statements announced that Syria may have transferred Scud missiles to Hezbollah. The revelation was a reminder that the Lebanon-based terrorist group serves multiple constituencies -- not just in Lebanon but in Iran and Syria as well. These constituencies -- which range from Iran's supreme leader to Hezbollah's Lebanese Christian political allies -- sometimes have competing interests, but they amount to one certainty: Hezbollah will not peacefully disarm soon, and to assert that it may betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Hezbollah's nature, Lebanese politics, and regional dynamics.

Because Hezbollah plays a destabilizing role in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, the prospect of its disarmament is alluring. Therefore, when the group participates in Lebanese politics, updates its platform, or holds discussions with various other parties, some analysts are quick to interpret such behavior as evidence that Hezbollah is becoming a nonviolent political actor. To consider that possibility, one must examine both the internal and external influences on Hezbollah's actions. Internally, the group and its patrons could choose to disarm voluntarily. Externally, a strengthened Lebanese state could minimize Hezbollah's operating space and thereby displace Hezbollah's arms and public support. Unfortunately, neither scenario is likely.    

Lebanon's political leaders are now formally debating the country's national defense strategy. Although such a dialogue requires acknowledging that the Lebanese state does not hold a monopoly on violence -- indeed, if Hezbollah were a national military, it would be among the most capable in the entire region -- Lebanon's elites typically avoid the issue of Hezbollah's arms. This is unfortunate, since Lebanon's biggest hurdle in designing a national defense strategy is determining Hezbollah's appropriate role in the state.

Since Hezbollah began participating in Lebanese politics in 1992 (upon receiving formal consent from Iran's supreme leader), it has demonstrated a willingness to engage with various parties inside and outside of Lebanon, including myriad Lebanese confessional leaders, European politicians, and former U.S. government officials. But such talks do not represent the first step on the path to disarmament. Rather, they show Hezbollah's flexibility in a dynamic geopolitical environment. Given the challenge of maneuvering politically in Lebanon -- where the country's 18 confessional groups all maintain affiliations with outside powers -- Hezbollah gains domestic and international influence by entering into dialogues with these groups. Doing so allows Hezbollah to remain involved in the many aspects of Lebanese political life.

Retaining arms is a key factor in Hezbollah's longstanding ability to subvert the Lebanese state. In May 2008, when rival Lebanese forces tried to undermine Hezbollah's communications infrastructure and minimize its covert security presence at the Beirut airport, the group responded violently, triggering the worst intra-Lebanese violence since the country's 15-year civil war. In 2007, when the Lebanese Armed Forces cracked down on Palestinian militants and seemed to be rising in stature, Hezbollah cautioned that military action against Palestinians would cross a "red line . . . [that] we will not accept." Hezbollah backed down when it became clear that the vast majority of Lebanese supported the use of force against Palestinians in Lebanon, but its warning was still a sign of subversive power. And in 2006, of course, Hezbollah's war with Israel affirmed the group's potency as a threat to regional stability -- a threat that the nominal government in Beirut cannot restrain. Today, although the United Nations has recognized the legitimacy of Israel's 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah continues to claim that pockets of land, such as Shebaa Farms, remain under Israeli occupation and can be liberated only by armed resistance from Hezbollah. On all of these matters, Hezbollah's arsenal strengthens its claims and influence.

The group's patrons, Iran and Syria, play critical roles in perpetuating its armed status. "It's not in our hands," a senior Lebanese political leader ruefully told me in Beirut recently. Rather, "regional circumstances monopolize." And there is no evidence that Hezbollah is seeking to alter these circumstances by genuinely distancing itself from Iran or Syria.

To be sure, when Lebanese politicians criticize Hezbollah for pursuing a supra-national mission, Hezbollah's leaders sometimes reply that their interests do not fully align with those of Tehran or Damascus. Yet the group has not refused the substantial funding it receives from Tehran, which is estimated by the U.S. Defense Department to be between $100 million and $200 million per year. Nor has Hezbollah rejected shipments of powerful weaponry from Iran or Syria. After the 2006 war, Syria rearmed Hezbollah with hundreds of M-600 rockets, and Iran sent more than 60 tons of weapons in one shipment alone. (Hezbollah's possession and lethal use of C-802 cruise missiles and Kornet antitank missiles in the 2006 war shocked Western officials who had severely underestimated its arsenal.)

In exchange for such sophisticated assistance, Tehran and Damascus expect Hezbollah to be a fearsome and generally compliant proxy. Beginning in 1983 with its attack on the United States' presence in Beirut, Hezbollah has repeatedly disrupted the region, generally to the benefit of Iranian and Syrian interests. For years, it has provided training to Iranian-backed militias in Iraq that target U.S. troops and undermine U.S. state-building efforts. Meanwhile, the threat of Hezbollah violence is a deterrent to those states considering military action against the Iranian nuclear program. Indeed, as international pressure has mounted against Iran's nuclear program, Hezbollah has grown stronger. This may be serendipity, or an intentional Iranian strategy to bolster an effective deterrent. Thus, even if Hezbollah were interested in disarming and becoming just another Lebanese political actor (which no Hezbollah leader appears to be considering), it is not clear that the Iranian regime would permit such a move.

Moreover, disarming Hezbollah would be much more complicated than simply taking away its weapons and integrating its personnel into Lebanese institutions; it would require that those institutions be capable of replacing Hezbollah's social-services infrastructure and serving the needs of the Lebanese population. It would also require a state military capable of exerting the Lebanese government's sovereignty throughout its territory, including the strongholds that Hezbollah has held for decades. At the moment, however, the military has neither the willingness nor the political backing to do so. Nearly four years have passed since UN troops in Lebanon were bolstered and the Lebanese military commenced a historic deployment to southern Lebanon. Yet there remains a dearth of political support -- in both the Lebanese government and the UN -- for empowering either the UN or the Lebanese military.  

Indeed, until the Middle East's larger political problems are resolved -- including the unstable state of affairs in and around Iran -- the viability of the Lebanese state will remain in question. Hezbollah, then, will remain armed and dangerous.


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  • MARA E. KARLIN is an instructor and a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She was Levant Director at the Pentagon from 2006-7 and Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2007-9.
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