Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is reportedly the key Resistance Axis figure to have filled the political role of slain Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in West Asia.
Since the January 2020 assassination of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, questions have been rife on who will inherit his files in the region.
In 2011, with the onset of Arab uprisings and counter-revolutions, Soleimani had entered forcefully into multiple political and military arenas encompassing a significantly broader geographic swathe than ever before, where he built or reinforced the Resistance Axis factions we know today. These exceptional feats of Soleimani took place with wide cover from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei and high coordination with the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.
Now, more than a year and a half after Soleimani’s assassination, sources inside the Axis tell The Cradle that Nasrallah has become the de facto heir to Soleimani’s multiple regional files. When “we say Nasrallah here, we are talking about Nasrallah the person and Nasrallah the head of the Hezbollah organization,” one source clarifies.
None of this has any bearing on the competence of Soleimani’s chosen Quds Force successor Ismail Ghani, whose role complements Nasrallah’s. Soleimani’s relationship with the Hezbollah leader was just on another level, the source explains.
Soleimani was omnipresent among resistance factions and parties in the region; one day on a battlefield here, the next, in a living room planning a new phase elsewhere.
His ability to coordinate and thwart US aggression was widely recognized in West Asia and well beyond. Following US-instigated regional turmoil in 2011, the Quds Force general was effectively involved in the pushback against this external interference, and was responsible for growing an expansive network of highly-trained and well-armed resistance militias, coordinators and operatives throughout the region.
During his tenure, Soleimani coordinated heavily with Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah to relay information to the general public and to clarify the reasons behind various regional conflicts, whether in Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere. This consistent exchange and dissemination of information laid the vital groundwork for building consensus among populations both within and outside the resistance umbrella.
Over the past months, political developments in the region have undergone a remarkable change, especially in the case of Syria. Until recently isolated by its Persian Gulf neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), today they are eagerly seeking out Syria for talks on diplomatic representation, reconstruction and regional cooperation.
Discussions have centered heavily on Gulf security, especially the war on Yemen, where Hezbollah’s role is prominent. As an example, sources point to a Gulf proposal brought to Nasrallah directly, in which the Hezbollah leader was asked to “pressure the Houthis to accept a ceasefire in exchange for offers to release the Lebanese citizens held in the UAE.”
Dubai did, in fact, release a number of Lebanese detainees (this issue had nothing to do with Hezbollah, it should be noted) as a goodwill gesture to encourage Nasrallah’s mediation with Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi. However, Nasrallah did not welcome the idea of applying pressure on Al-Houthi as the Saudis and Emiratis desired – for several reasons.
First is Nasrallah’s own position on the war on Yemen, which he considers to be a direct aggression against the Yemeni people and the country’s sovereignty. Second, the nature of the relationship between Hezbollah and the Houthis is based on respect – not on subordination, as the Saudis and Emiratis may imagine it to be.
Third, Nasrallah supports the Houthis’ demands, foremost of which are a ceasefire, the lifting of the economic siege, and compensation for the war.
Nasrallah did not entirely reject the mediation role he was asked to perform. He declared, instead, that he would relay the messages to Al-Houthi, and that they had sufficient diligence and maturity to make their own decisions.
In Iraq, open doors and open hearts
Iraq is by far the most politically complicated arena within the Resistance Axis field of operation, and Soleimani paid a great deal of attention to matters there. In turn, Nasrallah today plays a broader role in Iraq, a country in which he has solid relationships with political forces, even ones with opposing views.
The Hezbollah leader is highly cognizant of the political, security, military, social and religious nuances in Iraq, and has mastered the balancing act required between Baghdad’s sovereignty and Tehran’s interests, which garners him respect from friends and foes alike.
When Mustafa al-Kadhimi assumed the prime ministership in 2020, factions of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs, or Hashd al-Shaabi) controversially accused him of participation in the Soleimani and Muhandes assassinations. Senior Iraqi sources ridiculed the accusation, arguing that the Iraqi Prime Minister had a special relationship with the Hezbollah chief that kept the channels open with Iran on several occasions.
These sources point to the efforts of Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of the Lebanese General Security, in negotiating Lebanon’s purchase of Iraqi oil, an exchange that would not have been possible without direct follow-up by Kadhimi and Nasrallah.
The sources say that Nasrallah has increased his presence in Iraqi political life in recent times. Whether dealing directly or through his aides, headed by Hezbollah’s representative in Iraq Muhammad Kawtharani, his access to various leaders – Muqtada al-Sadr, Nuri al-Maliki, Da’wa Party leadership, PMUs, and others – is solid, and he has used this to help consolidate Iraqi political views at critical times, notably after the October 2019 revolts, and now, in the lead up to Iraq’s upcoming parliamentary elections.
In Iran, special bonds and tightly-knit connections
While the origins of Hezbollah can be traced to Iran’s post-revolution Islamic ideology, and the organization has maintained good relations with all Iranian presidents – including former President Hassan Rouhani – its relationship with Iran’s current President Ebrahim Raisi is in a whole different category.
Raisi has enjoyed a close personal friendship with Nasrallah for many years, deepened further through their mutual relationship with Soleimani. Information indicates that Nasrallah personally followed up on all the arrangements for Raisi’s visit to Lebanon in 2018, including his military tours of Hezbollah sites. It is said that Raisi has, on several occasions, addressed Nasrallah as ‘Ayatollah,’ a religious title of high status in Iran.
Similarly, Nasrallah enjoys a special relationship with the new Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a friendship established and strengthened during the latter’s tenure as Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs (2011–2016), and boosted by Abdollahian’s trusted friendship with Soleimani and his own frequent visits to Beirut’s southern suburbs.
These firm bonds and close connections between leaders in West Asia are coalescing at the right time, just as the region faces crucial decisions about its new direction.
With the Iran–US negotiations at a standstill, and tensions between the two nations peaking in various arenas, a few signs suggest some prospect of breakthroughs that may satisfy both Tehran and Washington – perhaps most obviously in Syria.
Several weeks ago, Jordan’s King Abdullah visited US President Joe Biden, who reportedly declared: “Washington agrees that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is staying for a long time and the countries of the region must deal [with Syria] on that basis.”
Tehran and its allies, led by Hezbollah, saw this US decision as a victory for them, after years of fighting in Syria to fend off the NATO–GCC backed mercenary armies seeking to unseat Assad at any cost.
For his part, Assad has deliberately emphasized in recent meetings that most Arab leaders communicate with him in secret, and that he will never forget or fail to appreciate those who defended Damascus alongside the Syrian army for the past ten tumultuous years.
This has prompted Hezbollah to step out of its comfort zone and take more proactive measures toward extricating Lebanon from the debilitating US economic and political siege of the country.
Syria represents Lebanon’s only viable land border for relieving its shortfall of essential goods, but Beirut has been forbidden to trade with or aide the Syrian economy in any way, by threat of American sanctions.
The ships that broke US sanctions
And so it came to this: ships laden with Iranian fuel sailing toward Lebanon.
Admittedly, while Nasrallah has sought to keep this maneuver within a ‘Lebanese context,’ solely as an effort to help Lebanon overcome its critical fuel shortage, these shipments collide with a multitude of regional interests far from the shores of Beirut and well beyond the issue of oil derivatives.
Perhaps the most predictable reaction came from US Ambassador in Beirut, Dorothy Shea.
On the day of Nasrallah’s 19 August speech announcing the departure of the first Iranian fuel ship, she hurriedly contacted Lebanese President Michel Aoun to discuss ways to import gas from Egypt through Jordan and Syria as a partial solution to the state’s energy woes.
Perhaps Shea thought the Lebanese were naive enough to believe her. Analysts aware of the implications of the step taken by Hezbollah to bring in ships from Iran say that this move cannot be interpreted solely within a domestic context, but rather as part of a new regional landscape that is crystalizing.
This, after all, is a move that affects other countries – several are immensely hostile to Iran, such as the United States and Israel, some are in a state of regional rivalry, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and yet others are in a state of isolation, such as Syria and Yemen.
When the Iranian fuel began entering Lebanon’s borders, one by one, in a long convoy of tanker trucks, loaded up at Syria’s Baniyas port after a safe and unimpeded cruise originating in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the eyes of the Israeli enemy – all its cameras and advanced equipment – were closely watching this unfamiliar, confusing scene.
The Hebrew media itself declared that the crossing of this Iranian fuel broke the American siege imposed on Lebanon and Syria – a clear political achievement by Hezbollah. Yes, Nasrallah brought Iranian fuel to Lebanon, but in doing so, also steered the calculations of parties throughout West Asia toward a new regional direction.