Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's state visit to Lebanon last week created a media circus and stirred new debate over the relationship of the Iranian regime to Hizbollah, Lebanon's dominant Shiite militia and political party. Mr Ahmadinejad's visit "suggests that Hizbollah values its allegiance to Iran over its allegiance to Lebanon", the White House spokesman Robert Gibbs declared last week.
Mr Gibbs's analysis is part of an effort by the US administration, along with some Arab and Lebanese critics of Hizbollah, to portray the Party of God as primarily an Iranian proxy. While Hizbollah has indeed become more reliant on Iran in recent years, it is a mistake for western and Arab policymakers to think that they can undermine the movement's base of support by casting doubt on its Arab or Lebanese identity. This approach also reflects a misunderstanding of Shiite history in Lebanon and why that community has grown so dependent on Hizbollah.
There is a long tradition of the Lebanese state leaving Shiites to fend for themselves and waiting for religious or charitable groups to fill the vacuum. This happened over decades, long before Hizbollah emerged in the early 1980s. Hizbollah's "state within a state" was possible because successive governments left a void in the Shiite-dominated areas of southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut. Hizbollah did what any effective political movement would do: it created a dependency and social service network that guaranteed its dominance.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when Shiites were first making the migration from the rural south and Bekaa to Beirut and other cities, the central government left their fate to the clans and feudal landlords who held sway in the agricultural hinterlands. In 1970, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) began creating bases in southern Lebanon, the Shiites were on the front line of a conflict between the PLO and Israel. More families fled their homes in the south and joined relatives who had already settled around Beirut. Around this time, a Shiite cleric named Musa al Sadr created Amal, the first major Shiite political party, which later turned into a militia. To an extent, Amal supplanted the feudal lords as protector of the Shiites.
When Israeli troops first invaded southern Lebanon in 1978 to drive out the PLO and create a "buffer zone" to prevent attacks on northern Israel, Shiites welcomed Israeli soldiers with rice and flowers. But that honeymoon did not last long, and Shiites were soon fighting the Israelis. The Shiites turned out to be more formidable enemies of Israel than the PLO.
After the wider Israeli invasion of 1982, when Israeli forces besieged Beirut and the PLO was finally forced out of Lebanon, Hizbollah emerged to fight the subsequent Israeli occupation of the south. It was more disciplined and less corrupt than Amal, although Hizbollah was always dependent on Iranian funding and support. The two groups pioneered the use of suicide bombings, initially against Israel troops and their Christian militia allies.
Then in October 1983, a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden truck into the US marine barracks outside Beirut airport. The bombing killed 241 troops and led to the withdrawal of the American peacekeeping force from Lebanon. US officials blamed Hizbollah for the suicide attack, although the group was a loose coalition of Shiite militants at that point and it has always denied responsibility.
But the Shiites revelled in their new role as standard bearers of Arab nationalism after the Palestinian defeat. At a 1984 meeting of Lebanese warlords in Switzerland, Nabih Berri, a Shiite lawyer who replaced Mr al Sadr as the leader of Amal, boasted: "A great Arab fortune was invested in the Palestinians. We showed the Arabs the lessons of martyrdom and courage."
When Hizbollah's grinding guerrilla war forced Israel to end its occupation in May 2000, the militia was hailed throughout the Muslim world for achieving what no Arab army had done before: force Israel to relinquish land without a peace agreement. With the Israeli withdrawal, Hizbollah moved into the vacuum in southern Lebanon, opening clinics and schools, and providing small-business loans. The group also expanded its military capability.
Since it was founded in the early 1980s, Hizbollah has received financial, military and political support from Iran. The Islamic Republic's militant clerics, including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, once hoped that the group would help export their revolution to the Arab world. But Hizbollah later abandoned the cause of creating an Islamic state in multi-confessional Lebanon. This is not to say that Hizbollah became a democratic or liberal movement. After the Israeli withdrawal, many Lebanese wanted it to disarm and become a strictly political party. Hizbollah's leaders refused, and they have since gone to great lengths to protect their weapons. The group has also shown little willingness to become accountable to the non-Shiite communities in Lebanon.
To many Shiites, Hizbollah's ascendance put them on the political map. There is a word Lebanese have sometimes used to insult Shiites: mitwali, which roughly translates into "country bumpkin". It is a term freighted with meaning - of dispossession, prejudice and deprivation. But some Shiites now use it with pride.
"During the civil war, we mitwalis were insulted and put down. Hizbollah gave us a new sense of dignity, and that's the most important right we can have," a young Shiite student once told me at a Hizbollah rally. "Hizbollah made it possible for us to stand, without fear, and shout from the rooftops that we are mitwalis."
Without understanding the depth of this Shiite experience in Lebanon, western and Arab policymakers have little hope of isolating Hizbollah as purely an Iranian proxy.
Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a journalism professor at New York University