Hezbollah considers the United States, not Israel, its greatest enemy
Lebanon’s Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during a funeral ceremony rally to mourn Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in Beirut’s suburbs, Lebanon, January 5, 2020.
April 18, 1996 is an infamous date in Lebanese history, particularly, among south Lebanon’s Shia Muslims. Israeli forces, engaged in operation Grapes of Wrath against Hezbollah, struck a UN compound in Qana, killing 106 Lebanese civilians sheltering there. The group, however, placed ultimate blame for the strike on the United States, not Israel.
In the same vein, while eulogizing Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani earlier this year, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah indirectly explained his group’s rationale, stating that America’s right place is that of “the primary enemy, the Greatest Satan.”
Hezbollah’s antipathy towards Israel is more uncompromising than its anti-Americanism. The group rejects Israel’s very existence due to anti-Judaism, which is exacerbated by the Jewish state’s presence on what Hezbollah considers sacred Islamic and historically Arab land. Nevertheless, as Hezbollah’s 1985 Open Letter—the group’s binding manifesto—indicates, the group’s rivalry with Israel is secondary. The Open Letter reserves its highest level of opprobrium for America, labeling it the main root of evil and declaring the “confrontation with America” as the yardstick for all of Hezbollah’s other activities.
Naim Qassem—Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general and its most articulate ideologue—has stated that the group’s pragmatic flexibility extends to its choice of enemies based on a particular foe’s behavior. He noted that France was once in a category as an enemy and now is in a different category. Yet, the organization’s hostility towards the United States has endured through geopolitical changes, more conciliatory US administrations, and, even, when Washington and Hezbollah inadvertently fought on the same side of a conflict, like in Bosnia or against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
The group claims that this exceptional American status stems from US global crimes—especially against Muslims—and its support for Israel. Contradictorily, Hezbollah maintains ties with France, Russia, and China despite their respective checkered pasts in Algeria, Afghanistan, and with the Uighurs, and despite being countries that share close relations with the Israel. Instead, Hezbollah’s clash with the United States is fundamentally over ideas rather than any specific misdeeds. It arises from Hezbollah’s identity as an extension of the Islamic Republic of Iran and a representative of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s unique theocratic “neither East nor West” civilizational model.
Qassem states that Hezbollah views this Khomeinist program as a comprehensive social, cultural, and economic system engaged in a Huntingtonian-style clash with other equally all-encompassing, competing ideologies. Its most alluring competitor—most crucially, within the Arab and Islamic world—is capitalism, which Qassem broadly defines as an “economic and culturaloutlook.” And, according to him, capitalism’s most potent propagator is the United States based on its currently unrivaled global economic, military, and cultural reach. Hassan Nasrallah has alternatively described this clash as “civilizational” and as two “projects”—an American-led one vying to control the Middle East and an Iranian-led “Resistance Axis” fighting to keep the region free from US domination.
Hezbollah views this US projection of power as the greatest threat to the Islamic Republic in and of itself. By contrast, it considers Israel an American “tool,” a “forward military base,” and, only, a regional military competitor, because Israel’s unique characteristics—Judaism and Zionism—and its influence lack the regional and global impact of American culture or power.
Hezbollah has therefore been waging what Nasrallah calls a “comprehensive political, economic, cultural, media, military and security confrontation” to weaken and end American global hegemony. Its Manichean division of the world into pro and anti-American camps—oppressors and oppressed, respectively—dictates its choice of friends and foes and furthers this goal. Washington’s surrogates are its chief foes, while its allies are actors—Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea—that actively undermine American influence, irrespective of their human rights records. In 2003, Hezbollah even sought to reconcile Iran’s historical arch-enemy Saddam Hussein with pro-Iranian Iraqi factions on the eve of the US invasion.
Hezbollah has also used calculated violence to accomplish its objective of weakening US global influence. During its embryonic stage in the 1980s, the group attacked US citizens, diplomats, and servicemen in Lebanon—including the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing – to end America’s presence in Lebanon, rather than merely cause casualties. In the subsequent decade, it outsourced these attacks to Hezbollah al-Hejaz, al-Qaeda, and others to destabilize US influence globally. Again, in 2003, when Hezbollah began training Iraqi Shia militias to fight US forces, Nasrallah expressed his hope that bogging Washington down in Iraq would “end the United States’ control over the world.” The group wanted to bleed America of treasure, personnel, and, perhaps, most importantly, its will to project force abroad by embroiling it in a protracted, asymmetric war.
More recently, in January, when Nasrallah vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death by killing US forces, the group’s Al-Akhbar mouthpiece elaborated that the goal was not merely to ensure withdrawal of all US troops, but to remove any trace of American influence from the Middle East. Though Nasrallah declared American civilians off-limits to violent acts, the publication declared that “the Great Liberation War” from America’s “oppressive occupation” of the region would include the removal of “a committee of advisers, artists, diplomats, human rights activists, developers, financiers, [and] directors of civil society groups.”
Hezbollah has also used softer methods to undermine the appeal of the United States and its ideals. The group routinely impugns the American-led liberal international order as inherently morally bankrupt. Commenting on the coronavirus pandemic, for example, Nasrallah alleged this order inculcated callousness towards society’s weakest and most vulnerable members. Hezbollah also promotes the notion that all American actions, no matter how seemingly benign—including aid to the Lebanese Army, the “War on Terror,” and even its promotion of “freedom, democracy, equality, human rights, and the supremacy of law” per Qassem—are smokescreens for domination and subjugation.
Absent direct American offenses or actions, Hezbollah attempts to undermine US appeal by attributing the actions of those of its partners—and even its enemies—to Washington. Hezbollah, thus, blames the US for all of Israel’s military brutality, including the destructive 2006 War, with Nasrallah claiming the United States pushed Israel into that war, “to establish a new Middle East, complementing the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.” The group has also reimagined Saudi Arabia’s war with the Iran-backed Houthis as “Saudi-American aggression against Yemen” to link Washington to the humanitarian catastrophe caused by Riyadh’s campaign in the country. It even claims ISIS is an American surrogate, with Nasrallah stressing, “every suicide bombing carried out anywhere in the Islamic world, every massacre in a mosque or church must be labeled ‘Made in America.’”
At its inception, Hezbollah echoed Khomeini by dubbing the United States the “Greatest Satan.” In the decades since, however, the group has devoted most of its violent energies to attacking Israel and, to varying degrees, other adversaries. Nonetheless, this has been largely due to the Jewish State’s geographic proximity and the more immediate nature of their mutual conflict. The United States—by virtue of its unrivaled ability to unilaterally counter and constrain Hezbollah and its patron Iran—has always been its primary enemy.