How do you square a circle without altering its character? This was the question that Hassan Nasrallah faced last week, when he addressed a giant crowd in southern Beirut. The circle in his case is the nature of Hezbollah as part of a global Shiite movement and a well-established ideological, not to mention organisational, allegiance to Iran. The square into which he wants to fit that circle is Lebanese nationalism.
The leader of the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah might not be the "new Saladin" as the Economist claims. However, one thing is certain: Nasrallah knows how to read the mood in Lebanon. He knows that the events of the past couple of years have inspired a strong sense of Lebaneseness Libanite that cuts across sectarian divides.
Acknowledging the new mood of Lebaneseness, Nasrallah is trying to tone down the stark Shiite identity of his movement. He is allocating greater space to tactical allies among Maronite Christians while trying to allay the suspicions of Sunni Muslims. To de-emphasise the sectarian nature of Hezbollah, he has also welcomed the recent upsurge of criticism from within the Shiite community.
Addressing the south Beirut crowd, last Friday, Nasrallah tried to recast Hezbollah as just a normal political party engaged in a debate with other parties over strictly political issues.
More importantly, perhaps, he acknowledged the fact that Hezbollah, enjoying the support of some 20 per cent of the electorate, cannot speak for Lebanon as a whole. "We do not pretend to be the majority," he insisted. Finally, he proposed the formation of a government of national unity, in contrast with Hezbollah's earlier calls for a "front for jihad" against "the infidel".
All this is welcome and may signal the first step towards reshaping Hezbollah as a Lebanese political party rather than an armed organisation engaged in a regional power struggle.
Nevertheless, Nasrallah still faces a number of contradictions.
How can there be a government of national unity if his party insists on remaining the only non-governmental armed group in the country? And, what is the sense of calling for a coalition when he tries to dictate key aspects of foreign policy, including relations with Israel, in advance? And, who would want to discuss coalition when Nasrallah vilifies the leading political figures behind Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government?
Assuming that he wants to transform Hezbollah into a political party, and also assuming that such a move is not vetoed in Tehran, Nasrallah still faces tough problems. The very name of his movement, Hezbollah (Party of God) assumes that religion, contrary to what he was saying last Friday, is at the heart of politics.
Lebanese Shiites have created several political movements in the past century or so. On every occasion, the Shiite leaders took care not to use religious terms to identify their movements. Nor did they inject sectarian themes into their discourse.
Today, Hezbollah is the only party in Lebanon with a religious name.
The contradictions apparent in Nasrallah's new position may not be apparent to most observers. But they are obvious to the Lebanese. For example, Nasrallah sent a cable to Iran's "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei, last month to congratulate him on what the two of them believed was "a great, divine, strategic victory" .
The Islamic Republic media picked that up as evidence to back the claim that war, provoked by the United States as a means of pressuring Iran, had had nothing to do with Lebanon.
At the time that Nasrallah was addressing the south Beirut crowd one of his senior aides was making a speech in Iran, also celebrating "The great, divine, strategic victory." The aide, Sayyed Abdullah Safieddin, offered a different analysis. In his reading, the war was not about real or imaginary Lebanese territory occupied by Israel. "We were inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran and by the martyrs of that revolution," he told a crowd of Revolutionary Guardsmen. He then claimed that Hezbollah's war against Israel had frustrated plots made by the "infidel" against Iran.
More significantly, Safieddin claimed that not only Hezbollah but also the entire Lebanese Shiite community were committed to the principle of Walayat Al Faqih (custodianship of the clerical ruler.) This may mean little or nothing to non-Shiites. However, to Shiites, the idea of Walayat Al Faqih, as presented by the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, has been a source of discord for three decades.
Reject the claim
The Khoeminist believe that the "Supreme Guide" of their revolution is not only the incontestable leader of all Shiites everywhere but also the only legitimate ruler in the world. Most Shiites, however, reject that claim and insist that, in the absence of the Hidden Imam, whose return is expected, there must be a separation of religious and state authorities.
A majority of Lebanese Shiites, including the late Mohammad-Madhya Shamsuddin, Mohammad Hussain Fadlallah and Ali Al Ameen, share the second view.
To be sure, it would be futile to demand that Hezbollah sever ties with Iran. Such a move, even if approved by a majority of members, could be suicidal. What can be done, however, is to end all ambiguity with regard to Walayat Al Faqih and dreams of transforming Lebanon into an "Islamic Republic" affiliated to Iran.
The way to do it is simple: Nasrallah should publicly declare that, although he may be personally a follower of the Iranian "Supreme Guide", Hezbollah as a whole is not beholden to the Walayat al-Faqih in Tehran. He should also declare that although he regards the Islamic Republic as the ideal form of government, he does not wish to impose it on the multi-religious Lebanon.
The circle that Nasrallah wants to square will resist change for as long as Hezbollah has not transformed its relations with Iran from one of sectarian allegiance to one of political alliance.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates