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The Roots of Hezbollah's Clout Lie in Iran

The ties between the militant group and Tehran are complex and go back decades. For many in Lebanon, it's a beneficial partnership.

September 10, 2006|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAALBEK, Lebanon — Charities modeled after Iranian organizations provide healthcare to the poor. Religious schools funded with help from an Iranian bank educate thousands of children. Islamic foundations with ties to Iran make loans to home buyers.

And when a "martyr" falls in battle, posters reminiscent of the ones studding Tehran rise up in the scenery of south Beirut, southern Lebanon and here in the Bekaa Valley. They even appear to have been drawn by the same artist.

A tour of Hezbollah's state within a state in southern Lebanon reveals a replica of the distinctive institutions and styles of the Islamic Republic's ideological machinery, and offers clues to the militant group's powerful hold here.

Iran's relationship with Lebanon's Shiites is a complex web stretching back decades and spanning nearly all facets of religious, economic and social life -- ties that have grown stronger since hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power last year.

"The Americans and Israelis are convinced that they're fighting a terrorist organization and they'll bomb it and the people will turn against it, like you're making a coup d'etat," said a critic of Hezbollah, who asked that his name not be printed for fear of retribution. "But the Iranians have knitted a carpet. You have to have patience to unravel it."

Lebanon and Iran have had strong religious and commercial ties for centuries.

The charismatic Imam Musa Sadr came to Lebanon from Iran in the 1960s to help the then-disenfranchised Shiite plurality, financing a series of schools throughout the country. After the 1979 Iranian revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, those ties were strengthened by blood as Iran dispatched hundreds of Revolutionary Guard troops to the Bekaa Valley to help organize Shiite militants and direct their guns toward invading Israeli forces.

In return, Lebanese guerrillas trained Iranian soldiers, accustomed to American equipment, to use Russian-made weaponry during Iran's 1980s war against Sunni-dominated Iraq, said Hassan Hosseini, a Beirut researcher writing a book on relations between Iran and Lebanon.

The Islamic Republic opened its purse to Hezbollah with the group's inception in 1982, in part because the militants provided direct access to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran's new rulers were ideologically committed to opposing Israel and eager to prove themselves as the true champions of the Islamic nation.

Almost immediately as well, Iranians began exporting versions of their unique institutions. Jihad al Bina, which is handing out cash to homeless Shiites, was launched in 1984, an offshoot of the similarly named organization in Iran. The Imam Khomeini Foundation began operations in 1987.

Overt Iranian funding comes through Bank Saderat, a state-owned import-export bank that arrived in Lebanon in the early 1960s and expanded its presence there during the 1990s, opening branches in the Bekaa Valley and the south.

The bank was used as a tool to further Iran's foreign policy goals in Lebanon, disbursing funds for charities, social services and several networks of schools, said a former financial services industry professional and scholar who has studied Saderat's operations.

"It became a receptacle of all the goodwill activity of all the organizations that are linked to Iran," he said. "They funnel through the bank."

On Friday, the Treasury Department announced it was barring Saderat from doing business with the U.S. The bank allegedly has given one Hezbollah-controlled organization $50 million since 2001, the department said in a statement.

"Bank Saderat facilitates Iran's transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations each year," said Stuart Levey, the department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. "We will no longer allow a bank like Saderat to do business in the American financial system, even indirectly."

Indeed, Saderat practices none of the traditional banking activities in Lebanon: There are no ATMs or gifts for opening savings accounts. Its assets totaled a modest $101 million in 2004. Yet at times its receipts have careened off the map, the former industry professional said.

Lebanon is awash in cash. Although the country of 4 million has an annual trade deficit of $6 billion to $7 billion a year, it almost always ends up with a positive balance of payments, meaning more than $7 billion in cash enters the country annually, said Kamal Hamdan, a Lebanese economist.

"Nothing is really traceable," he said. "You have remittances. You have tourism. You have transfers from nonofficial sources and direct private investment."

Even after Lebanon implemented strict money-laundering laws in 2001, funds kept flowing to Hezbollah. In a 2004 study, one secular Shiite political party estimated that Hezbollah had an annual budget of $600 million to $700 million and was providing jobs to 37,000 people.

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