Can Hezbollah rely on supporters for funding as US sanctions take their toll?

Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, is resorting to crowd funding to fill its shrinking coffers.

The militant group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke of its growing dependency on donors during a recent speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Resistance Support Association, a benefactor organization.

The speech shined a rare light on Hezbollah’s financial position, usually one of the organization’s most closely guarded secrets, but now under close scrutiny after seven years of war in Syria and the crippling sanctions imposed on its patron.

“The sanctions are being talked about internally. There have been unconfirmed talks of salaries being slashed and cut down 40 percent,” said Nicholas Blanford, Hezbollah expert and author of two major books on Lebanese political affairs. “The fact that the leadership has been talking about it underlines how serious it is. This is coming at a time where Iran is also feeling the economic pressure. The US Treasury Department has been very diligent in the recent years in trying to trace where the funding comes from and to cut them off, whether it’s legal or illicit business.”

The group has made frequent pleas to its supporters to contribute financially and has cut salaries to employers and fighters as the cost of its protracted war has bitten deep into its coffers.

While Hezbollah soldiers and employees have refused to comment publically, a Shiite father with a son stationed in Syria said, “They’ve cut down their meals. They don’t get to eat three meals a day anymore.”

Propaganda campaigns are appealing to the group’s mainly Shiite supporters to contribute as little as four dollars a month.

Broader campaigns have also been launched, such as “Equip a Mujahid,” which seeks donations for military projects.

Recent US-led sanctions on Iran, which the Trump administration has described as “the toughest sanctions ever,” are certain to tighten the squeeze on Hezbollah in Beirut. The group secured a stronger hold than ever on Lebanon’s dysfunctional political system in the horse-trading that followed elections last May.

The sanctions target the country’s critical sectors such as finance, energy, and shipping, and aim to apply maximum pressure on the Iranian regime.

Due to the sanctions and the US’s designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, Iran has been struggling to finance its allies and wars in other countries.

Although Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has claimed that Iran “will proudly break the sanctions” and “continue selling oil,” regional observers say the country faces unprecedented pressure to hold its economy together.

But Ali Zbeeb, a Beirut-based international lawyer who specializes in US sanctions, claims the sanctions are so far not working as the US hoped they would.

“There is no specific statistic of how much funds for Hezbollah come from Iran,” he said. “While the sanctions are seeking the complete destruction of the group, it is still a far-fetched idea. Hezbollah has a significant popular base and the lender of the last resort is these people. Hezbollah can survive on their petty cash for a while.”

Pro-Hezbollah social media pages have published details of its supporters’ donations, ranging from golden rings to checks.

Carnegie Middle East researcher and Hezbollah scholar Mohanad Hage Ali argues, “The Lebanese government is embarking on austerity measures in which its public employees will lose part of their income. So Hezbollah fighters and employees can find some consolation across Lebanese society. They are not alone in this.”

“But as far as crowd funding is concerned, the party understands its limitations. This is a largely poor society and expecting the public to sustain support is not a very wise long-term plan.”

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