Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lebanon's Hizbullah (& Palestinian HAMAS) in Iran? Dissecting the Rumor

UPDATE (5:05 p.m., June 25): A blog post by a well known Iranian dissident in exile is now being circulated on Twitter as "proof" of the "Lebanese Hizbullah in Iran rumor." A good friend who is fluent in Persian was kind enough to provide a summary of the post, which cites no original sources or evidence that "proves" anything, let alone the rumor. The post also reuses two photographs run almost one week ago by a Persian ad English language web site with a royalist (shah) banner prominently displayed. This web site also did not provide evidence for its allegations of who the individuals photographed were. Now, scores of people, most who probably cannot read any Persian, are yet again participating in the Twitter rumor echo-chamber. Some ignorant Twitter users are even misidentifying the language of the blog post as "Arabic;" I mean, all those "squiggly line" languages are the same, right?

The dissident-blogger provides no actual sources, and simply repeats the same sourceless rumors that have been circulating for nearly a week. His claim rests on the "argument" that Hizbullah is now "repaying" those from whom it benefited. Of course, this would also include Mir Hossein Mousavi, who, along with Iran's ambassador to Syria, Hujjat al-Islam
Ali Akbar Mohtashami, was instrumental in supporting Lebanese Shi'i groups when they were coalescing into a unified movement (Hizbullah) in the mid 1980s.

UPDATE (12:49 p.m., June 25): Shaykh Na'im Qassem, Hizbullah's deputy secretary general, said in an interview: ""Hezbollah has nothing to do with Iran's internal affairs," he said. "We don't side with anyone. This is an internal Iranian issue. What is happening there has nothing to do with our situation. We have our own Lebanese identity and popularity, and these events don't concern us."

UPDATE (9:15 p.m., June 23): Veteran Middle East and war correspondent Robert Fisk, of the British newspaper The Independent, who is in Tehran chimes in about the rumors:

"Now for the very latest on the fantasy circuit. The cruel "Iranian" cops aren't Iranian at all. They are members of Lebanon's Hizbollah militia. I've had this one from two reporters, three phone callers (one from Lebanon) and a British politician. I've tried to talk to the cops. They cannot understand Arabic. They don't even look like Arabs, let alone Lebanese. The reality is that many of these street thugs have been brought in from Baluch areas and Zobal province, close to the Afghan border. Even more are Iranian Azeris. Their accents sound as strange to Tehranis as would a Belfast accent to a Cornishman hearing it for the first time. Fantasy and reality make uneasy bedfellows, but once they are combined and spread with high-speed inaccuracy around the world, they are also lethal."

The rumors are becoming more and more ridiculous now, and continue to spread thanks to dishonest or uncritical users of Internet sites such as Twitter. I have seen multiple claims, with no evidence to support them whatsoever, of "Syrians, Sudanese, Chechens, and Taliban" in Iran as riot-breakers. Is this the same Taliban, from Afghanistan, who is virulently anti-Shi'i and hanged Iranian diplomats in the 1990s? And are these the same equally anti-Shi'i Chechen groups? What's next, North Koreans?

The first commentor makes a thinly disguised ad hominem allegation that I am an "apologist" for the Iranian government. This claim is demonstrably false, as evidenced by my past writing on this, and other, issues. See, for example, HERE and HERE.

Other readers mistakenly think that I am saying that there are certainly "no members" in Iran for the rumored purpose. I am not arguing this. I am criticizing the blind acceptance of such rumors, any rumors, without reliable substantiation or those which are based on purported "verification" by blatantly ideologically-motivated media sources or anonymous and possibly fictional "sources." I am also criticizing those who peddle such rumors as fact, whether on Twitter (as many are doing) or via other mediums.

The Problems with Twitter discussed HERE.

Also, please see the "Comments" for this post to read important
points and counter-points from readers.

Read Alexander's excellent, balanced examination of this and other rumors circulating in the U.S. and European media, and among segments of the demonstrators themselves on The Ruh of Brown Folks.
Choice quote: "
I think that spreading rumors such as these two damages the credibility of the protest movement. It is simply hypocritical to accuse Ahmadinejad of fraud and then circulate forged letters and false rumors."

UPDATE (5:55 p.m., June 18): Distortion of a quote from an article from the Iranian government funded Press TV media outlet is making the rounds on Twitter, claiming: "Lebanese Hezbollah Chief Nasrallah says Iranian protesters “are in illusion," linking to a short Press TV online article. The actual quote, in context, reads (I have not edited the quote, even to change spelling to the transliteration style employed at Occident):

"Now yes, some of our friends in Iran have caused a problem because of the dispute over vote counting. There have always been disputes of this kind in Iran but with the presence of Wileyet el Fakih, the Supreme Leader Khamenei, and the maturity and presence of mind of the Iranians, Iran will pass through this crisis easily," Nasrallah stated.

"And all those people who are dreaming and analyzing and holding up hopes otherwise, they are in illusion," he concluded. "

The placement of the quoted line has been changed, and a meaning has been added by dishonest Twitter users. Nowhere does Nasrallah refer to the demonstrators as being "in illusion." Rather, he says that those who think Iran will not "pass through this crisis easily" (see the line immediately above) are "in illusion." Yet more evidence that one must be carefuly relying solely on Twitter for reliable news.

Meanwhile, more rumors are being peddled on Twitter that now claim the Palestinian Islamist group HAMAS has sent people to Iran in order to suppress the demonstrations. The evidence? Quotes attributed to anonymous "Iranians," and polemical screeds on right-wing web sites.

One such site is the blog Gateway Pundit, which reproduces photographs from a source that uses the old royalist Iranian flag prominently in its banner that are allegedly of "HAMAS and Hizbullah" members in Iran. How one can tell the nationality of the two men, let alone what groups they are members of, is not explained. The blog also quotes an article from the right wing Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post. The first line is key:
"Palestinian Hamas members are helping the Iranian authorities crush street protests in support of reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, two protesters told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday." The newspaper's "sources"? Two shadowy, unidentified "protestors." It is also remarkable that a rightwing Israeli newspaper has reporters in Iran.

The article from The Jerusalem Post uses identical text from a polemical screed penned by a "Paul Williams" for a conservative, seemingly Evangelical, Christian blog named "The Last Crusade." The newspaper does not list Mr. Williams as a contributor to the article, and it is unclear which party is guilty of plagiarism, but the same text appears in both the article and the blog screed.

This screed is also republished by the right-wing Canadian media outlet Canada Free Press.

Even The New York Times is promoting these rumors. In this article on the Basij, they provide a hyperlink to more articles on the Lebanese Hizbullah (Hezbollah) when they write "Ansar-e Hezbollah," the name of a pro-regime Iranian group.


A rumor has been circulating widely on the Internet that 5,000 members of the paramilitary wing of the Lebanese Shi'i political party Hizbullah have been "brought in" to assist the Iranian government suppress pro-Mousavi, Reformist, and other demonstrations. This rumor has been spread on a variety of web sites, including those of the far right and far left in the United States, including the far left Daily Kos [both camps share remarkably similar, dim, views of the ongoing events in Iran, and other issues; they are not as different as they may wish to believe.] The rumor reportedly is based on unsubstantiated claims printed in the German newspaper Der Spiegel, who published a largely unsubstantiated claim that Hizbullah was behind the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, which was based largely on "anonymous" sources. Other bloggers have noted seeing similar rumors being spread on supposedly responsible and reliable news outlets, like CNBC.

The number of 5,000 is ridiculously high. The best "guestimate" puts the number of Hizbullah's active paramilitary fighters at between 1,200-2,000, with the party being able to call upon perhaps several thousand more "part-time" reserves. The number circulating in the Internet rumor even exceeds the estimates of Israeli intelligence, which has an interest in exaggerating the numbers of Hizbullah's paramilitary fighters. Even given the fact that some of Hizbullah's elite forces receive military training in Iran, it is unlikely that the number of part members in that country number anywhere near 500, let alone 5,000, at any one period of time.

Hizbullah paramilitary fighters

This rumor is built about the erroneous, polemical claim that Hizbullah is not really a Lebanese movement, but simply a "proxy" or "puppet" of Iran. According to this claim, peddled by many Israeli officials and their allies abroad, particularly in the United States, Hizbullah will thus do whatever the supreme leader (rahbar-e jumhur), al-Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei, asks, without question. In reality, the party is a Lebanese phenomenon and is primarily focussed on domestic issues, and was formed between 1982-1986 to address domestic concerns. The party has a close, strategic alliance with Iran, with which it also shares many ideological similarities, particularly with regard to politics. Khamenei is also recognized as the party's "guide," as was Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Ruhollah Khumayni before. However, individual party members are free to follow the marja' al-taqlid (religious reference; grand ayatullah) of their choice. Informal studies suggest that most follow either Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid 'Ali Husayni Sistani, based in Iraq, or Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, based in Lebanon.

Considering the key point in political horsetrading in Lebanese politics right after the recent parliamentary elections, it is unlikely that Hizbullah would send all of its full-time paramilitaries or even its part-time reserves abroad. The ongoing tense relations between March 8, the National Opposition political coalition of which Hizbullah is a member party, and the ruling March 14 coalition make such a move by the party even more unlikely.

A massive Hizbullah rally in Beirut

The argument that Hizbullah would send the bulk of its active paramilitary force abroad because it fears losing substantial financial support from the Iranian government is factually unfounded. The ties beween the two remained strong during the two terms of Reformist president Hujjat al-Islam al-Sayyid Muhammad Khatami (1997-2005). The polemical "logic" that Iranian financial support of the party "proves" that it is a "proxy" would mean that foreign aid from one country to another makes the second country a "proxy." Therefore, the militant Lebanese Maronite party Phalange was an Israeli "proxy" in the 1980s, since the rightwing Likud government of prime minister Menachem Begin provided over $100 million in support to it, hoping to install a pro-Israel Maronite regime in Lebanon.

Hizbullah leader al-Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah (left) meets with Sa'd al-Hariri, the leader of the largest party in the ruling March 14 political coalition, the Sunni party Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Movement), in Beirut on October 27, 2008.

There are claims that some of the forces acting to quell the demonstrators in Iran are "speaking Arabic" (be afraid!), though these claims are based largely from Internet claims, such as those dominating Twitter at the moment, which have not been independently verified or proven. Some argue that, if true, these individuals may simply be from one of the Arabic-speaking minorities in the country, particularly since nearly 50% of the population are not native Persian-speakers and/or are not ethnically Aryan ("Persian"). Iran has a large Arab minority in the west. A counter-argument to this explanation notes, accurately, that the Iranian Arab minority and those minorities who may speak Arabic are generally hostile to the Iranian government, regardless of who is president. Iran's radical jihadi Sunni groups, such as Jund Allah (God's soldiers) are drawn primarily from the country's Baluchi and Arab minorities.

Is it possible that Lebanon's Hizbullah has sent some of its members to Iran? Sure. I just don't find it probable, particularly in the numbers claimed in the rumors/allegations. It is more likely that biased European and American journalists and Internet pundits confused the nickname of usually plainclothes pro-government students and other individuals (hizbullahi) or members of the Basij, a government reserve that includes a large paramilitary wing (similar in some ways to state national guards in the U.S.) and, erroneously, assumed that these "reports" referred to Lebanon's Hizbullah. There is also a Turkish group that goes by the same name. As for Twitter "reports" about "Arab-speakers," these have yet to be independently verified and may in fact have emerged from the prejudice of some Aryan Iranians ("Persians") to Arabs, and non-Aryan Iranians.

Members of various Basij units, including a scouts-type unit for Iranian youth (middle) and a women's unit (below).

See also Andrew Exum's take @ the Abu Muqawama blog HERE and HERE.

The rumors are now making the rounds on far right blogs and the Twitter echo-chamber, one of the big negatives of Twitter as a "news" service.


Hizbullah leader al-Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah did congratulate Khamenei on the election, but he would have done this regardless of the outcome, as he has in the past.

The official English translation of this letter reads:

"In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Your Eminence Grand Ayatollah Imam Sayyed Khamenei (May you live long) Peace and God's mercy and blessings be upon you... On behalf of my brothers and sisters in Hizbullah, I congratulate your eminence on this magnificent epic created by the great Iranian people in this historic presence last Friday, in the presidential elections, when they renewed their support and faith in this blessed system and the values and principles of the Islamic Revolution-founded and led by His Eminence the late Imam Khomeini (May God honour his soul). This magnificent epic is one of the great blessings of your wise leadership, your paternal guidance and your tremendous patience, whilst it has introduced joy to the hearts of all the vulnerable and the Mujahideen...hope was revived through the strength, sturdiness and solidity of the structure of this dear republic which represents a great, strong, and steadfast backing of our resistant people and defending their rights in the face of the aggressors and extorters. I ask God Almighty to perpetuate your noble presence to achieve under your leadership more of glory and command for Iran and the nation."


Anonymous said...

The claims cannot be independently verified... because the media have been banned from reporting. This is a risk that the regime in Iran takes when it shuts down a free press. It is amazing that "apologists" will then use that opportunity to use the lack of independent verification against the protestors.

Isn't that a bit biased in its own right? ihtirram nefsik

إبن الصقلي said...

I wrote nothing against the demonstrators. And despite your ad hominem, the reports remain unverified. Plenty of reports from major international media outlets are getting out of the country despite the ban, which weakens your explanation. As for the accusation that I an "apologist" for the government are demonstrably false by my past writing on this issue.

Isn't it a bit dishonest and irresponsible to make demonstrably false claims? Haraam 'alayk.

إبن الصقلي said...

The post was a commentary on one specific rumor/claim, as is obvious to any fair assessor.

Thomas said...

The rumor began before the ban on reporting.

Attila said...

In order to understand the true possibility of using Hamas and especially Hezbollah members as a crowed suppression force, one needs to consider that firstly, reports of the presence of Arabic speaking among the militia (Basij) members is nothing new. Pretty much with every unrest such reports circulate and most Iranians witness to this are reasonably certain that there were foreigners among non-uniformed attackers to the crowed. Secondly, the most compelling reason is that the most of Iranian uniformed security forces are as dissatisfied and unhappy as the rest of the population and are unwilling to attack and fire upon the people that they mostly consider their own family. Even in previous uprisings the armed forces were generally quick to join the people. The minimal fanatic forces that they have can be easily overwhelmed with large crowds and so use of foreign mercenaries in debt to Iranian government is not a far out idea at all. However I should point out that other that few eyewitnesses that I have personally spoken to, I have seen no other evidence of this but that certainly does not mean that it is not true or this government is not capable of doing so.

إبن الصقلي said...

I do not say that it is necessarily untrue, or that the current government "is not capable" of bringing in individuals from abroad. However, I think it is unlikely that (A) Hizbullah (Lebanon's) has that many paramilitaries to send, and (B) would send substantial numbers of its members abroad during such a key period in Lebanon's post-parliamentary election negotiations.

Hizbullah stands to gain little, as Iranian financial support will probably continue regardless of who is president, as it has in the past.

As for the divisions among the Basij, military, Pasdaran/Sipah, and other security forces, I don't disagree. I am interested to know what data your assessment is based on.

Your note that foreigners may be participating, which I don't deny as a possibility, seems to rest mostly on circumstantial evidence and eyewitness accounts (though many of these accounts are often anonymous).

Presumably if HAMAS members have been brought in, they would have probably come in from Lebanon or Syria, unless both Egyptian, Jordanian, and Israeli security forces around Gaza and the West Bank are particularly inept. It also seems strange that Israeli intelligence has not reported mass movements of HAMAS and Hizbullah members to Iran. They have an interest in supporting such a story, whether or not it is factual or not.

As I wrote originally, the claims are possible. I was writing why I think they are, at the very least, grossly exaggerated with regard to numbers. Thanks for reading and contributing to the discussion in a well reasoned, thoughtful way.

Attila said...

Firstly, I would like to point out that I agree that the numbers mentioned are totally unreal. Such a massive movement of paramilitary forces under constant surveillance of many spy agencies is impossible not to mention a logistics nightmare in such short notice for the both sides. I also agree that financial support for Hamas and Hezbollah is a strategic move and is nothing to be shaken by such events.
As far the eyewitnesses that I was talking about, they were personal relatives and their experiences was not in this latest rounds of protests. Their experience occurred during a limited and small series of demonstration organized by teachers demanding better work conditions and compensations that resulted in many arrests and street violence toward the teachers. One of these relatives was actually an Arabic teacher and when I asked that “perhaps Basij members were using limited Arabic to coordinate knowing that the majority would not understand”, he said that their accent was totally professional (Farsi natives speak Arabic with distinct accent) and could have not been Persian speaking. He also mentioned that conversations went long and were much longer than simple signals. But again, until few are captured with their documentation showing as such with the presence of independent media, it is anyone’s guess as to the true identity of these people.
Most creditable accounts of such events are on attacks that were designed as an ambush and intended for maximum impact. i.e. attacks on University Students with fatalities 8 years ago. These were intended as news making attacks to scare the rest and so such numbers in thousands is not necessary at all. As a matter of fact less than 300 would accomplish the intended purpose as all previous ones involved even less. With such numbers, Hamas and Hezbollah members in training circulation already in Iran would suffice and there is no need for such massive transport.

On the point of uniformed security forces, although there are many, other than Basij the majority are either in mandatory service or are working for the minimal money to sustain living. It is only Basij that are composed primarily of the fanatics and/or misguided. Essentially over 90% of existing armed forces of all kind will be useless against the internal problems as such.

إبن الصقلي said...

Thanks very much for the clarifications and additional details.

This point, in particular, I think is a particularly important observation:

"As a matter of fact less than 300 would accomplish the intended purpose as all previous ones involved even less. With such numbers, Hamas and Hezbollah members in training circulation already in Iran would suffice and there is no need for such massive transport."

From person experiences interacting with native Persian speakers, from Iran and Afghanistan, who know Arabic, I know what you mean by "distinct accent."

I don't think that our views on this issue are really that far apart, at least from my perspective.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your insight. However, it's also possible that the reports of non-Aryan soldiers reflect the genuine existence of a non-Iranian force within Iran, kept in reserve for just such an occasion. It's not historically without precedent: the British used Sikhs and Ghurkas around the world and Ghurkas imported from India today occupy most of the law enforcement roles in Singapore. Similarly the use of Cossacks in Tsarist Russia, Hessians during the American revolution, and the squadron of "Immortals" in Xerxes' army in ancient Persia. We know the normal uniformed forces (police, army, IRGC) are now unwilling to crack down on protestors, and even the Basijis are beginning to balk, and if the Iranian government was at all aware that this might happen you'd expect them to have someone less unreliable in reserve.

إبن الصقلي said...

Yes, I agree that the presence of such a force is a real possibility. I just don't think that it is very useful to accept such claims without real evidence, as I have discussed with Attila in the Comments. I do, however, not believe that anywhere near "5,000" members of Lebanon's Hizbullah have been dispatched to Iran, or were in Iran before the beginning of the demonstrations.

Nonetheless, your historical examples of the frequent use of "foreign" or "non-local" auxiliary military forces is a very valid one. I would even add to your list the use of Turkish Ghilman by the 'Abbasids and other Muslim dynasties, Nubians by the Fatimids, the Ottoman Janissaries, Safavid Armenian, Georgian, and Circassian ghulaman, and the hodge-podge mix in the Achaemenid armies (as you note with the Immortals).

Thanks for reading and sharing your insights, and for making an important point.

Attila said...

I don't think that they are apart at all. Besides, such dealings are plenty in the world history and even if every single protester that was bitten or killed happened in the hands of another Iranian, it doesn't change the fact that one can hire murderers of such with ease and little money in any country. Who does the actual firing of the bullets or wielding of the batons is immaterial in the issues of this scale. Someone will always be there to do it.

إبن الصقلي said...

"Someone will always be there to do it."

A sad truth.

Thanks again for enriching the discussion.

Attila said...

You are welcome, I also enjoyed it and learned.

Alexander said...

Excellent post. I was in the middle of writing about this and another rumor being circulated by the Iranian opposition when I saw your post. Now I can just link to here instead of repeating much of the same discussion!

إبن الصقلي said...

Thanks very much for the compliment, Alexander!

lidia said...

Very interestinng. A bit of nagging - Falanga in Lebanon WAS an Israel proxi, because they went against their people for the sake of Zionist foe. But the also were facists (see their name) and racists and did not see other Lebanese (muslims) as their people.

Of course, Egyptian rulers are USA proxi, and so on.

Hizballah are non-rasist and do not act for Iran's sake. They simple, as you mentioned, have a lot in common - for ex, the common foe - Zionism and USA imperialism

By the way, I am studying Arabic now - does you nick mean "The shyning one"?

lidia said...

OOPS. I was so busy translating the second part of your nick that forgot about the first and misspelled the word "shine":(

So, does you nick mean "Son of the shining"

إبن الصقلي said...

Thanks for reading, lidia.

It translates to "son of the Sicilian (Siqilli)."

lidia said...

WOW. As usual, the most difficult words in new language are thouse that are from other one :)

Evan said...

Very interesting post. I intend to link to it on a blog entry on my page, which is on the same topic.
I do not take a position on whether or not there are Lebanese Hizbollahis collaborating in the repression in Iran. I find the charges believable in moderation, but the evidence all to liable to having been falsified.

إبن الصقلي said...

Thanks for reading, and for your compliment.

I take exception mostly to the uncritical acceptance of any and all "reports" simply because one wants them to be true. For example, some were passing along the blog post you translated, and my friend did also, and misidentified the language as Arabic, suggesting that they didn't actually know what it said. Nonetheless, they wrote "proof" or "proven" about the rumor with their Tweet.

I also take exception to the false "re-Tweeting," i.e. not actually re-Tweeting but simply writing "RT" to make it look, on quick glance, like it is an actual RT. Other friends and colleagues of mine, also sympathetic to outright supportive of segments of the demonstrators, have noticed similar questionable activities.

In any case, I think that your position and mine are not that far apart, if at all.