New head of military wing appointed directly by Revolutionary Guard in significant shift in relationship between Tehran and Lebanese movement
The military wing of the Lebanese movement Hezbollah has been instructed by Iran to suspend operations against Israel and to target Saudi Arabia instead, Middle East Eye can reveal.
The instruction comes in the wake of widespread anger at the apparent assassination of Mustafa Badreddine, its military commander in Syria and head of the movement's military wing, which Hezbollah blamed on “takfiri” forces supported by Riyadh.
According to well informed sources in Lebanon, the order was conveyed in person by Qasim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) who came to Beirut to give his condolescences.
Soleimani also named Badreddine’s successor and his two deputies, which is believed to be an unprecedented move in the relationship between Iran and the Lebanese movement. Previous appointments have been an internal matter for Hezbollah in consultation with Iran, MEE understands.
Badreddine’s replacement is Fuad Shukr, whose nom de guerre is al-Hajj Mohsen, the sources told MEE.
Aged 55 and from the village al-Nabi Sheeth in the Bekaa Valley, Shukr comes from the core group which started Hezbollah along with Imad Mughniyeh, Badreddine, and Mustafa Sahadah.
Whereas his predecessors came from the intelligence and security wing of the organisation, Shukr came to prominence as a military man, responsible for operations against Israel, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers.
A graduate of the Imam Hussein University in Tehran, Shukr is regarded as well trained. Soleimani not only named the new head of Hezbollah’s military wing, but his two deputies as well, sources told MEE. They are Ibrahim Aqil, also know as al-Hajj Tahsin, but whose current pseudonym is al-Hajj Abdul Khader, and Talal Hamiah.
Shukr's appointment comes despite earlier reports in the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat suggesting that Badreddine’s nephew Mustafa Mughniyeh would be named as his successor.
MEE understands these reports to be incorrect.
Iran’s order to Hezbollah, and the fact that they have gone to such lengths as to appoint a successor, confirms the significance to Iran of Badreddine’s death, the exact circumstances of which are still a matter of speculation. His death near Damascus airport was initially blamed on an Israeli covert operation, but this was contradicted by a Hezbollah statement.
It read: ”Investigations have showed that the explosion, which targeted one of our bases near Damascus International Airport, and which led to the martyrdom of commander Mustafa Badreddine, was the result of artillery bombardment carried out by takfiri [Sunni militant] groups in the area."
The nearest opposition artillery positions however were 20 kilometres away and there are doubts that their shells could achieve pinpoint accuracy from that distance.
Hezbollah slogans at Badreddine’s funeral left little doubt that they held Saudi Arabia responsible for their military commander’s death.
Ever since Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic relations after the storming of their embassy in Tehran following the execution of the Shia leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, relations between the rival regional powers have plummeted.
The latest sign of this was the failure to agree on arrangements for Iranian pilgrims to travel to this year’s Hajj.
The failure of four days of talks between the two sides last month has led to statements of mutual recrimination which will mean that Iranian pilgrims will almost certainly miss this year’s ceremonies.
Iran said that its citizens would not participate in the Hajj and blamed Saudi Arabia for the problem. Last year’s Hajj was marred by the death of at least 769 pilgrims, many of them Iranian, in a stampede at Mina on the outskirts of Mecca.
According to MEE sources the instruction Iran gave was to initiate actions against Saudi Arabia before the beginning of the Hajj in September. Shukr's task is to co-ordinate military actions with an Iraqi Shia paramilitary group Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, and a shia group in Bahrain Saraya al-Mukhtar.
Hezbollah operatives have been used in the past in the Gulf. A member of the al-Dawa militant group, Badreddine was arrested along with 17 others after the truck bombings of the US and French embassies in Kuwait City in 1983. In 1985 Badreddine was also reportedly involved in a failed assassination attempt of the Kuwaiti emir.
Amed Ibrahim al-Mughassil, a Saudi Shia member of Saudi Hezbollah who allegedly masterminded the attack on the US military barracks in Khobar in 1996, was captured last year after a 20-year manhunt. Saudi Hezbollah, also called Hezbollah el-Hajaz, is close to Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the IRGC.