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Lebanon Provides Fertile Ground for Iranian Influence

The 1979 Islamic Revolution not only changed the face of Iran, but was also meant for export. It succeeded in making political Islam a force to reckon with across the Muslim world and has enhanced Iran's influence along the way. Even now, 30 years later, that influence continues to find fertile ground in Lebanon, through the militant Shi'ite group Hezbollah and with the country's Shia population.

The hills and valleys of southern Lebanon are home to many of the country's Shia Muslims.

In some places, support for the militant group Hezbollah is openly on display. Hezbollah is not only rooted in Lebanon's Shia community; it is also closely linked to Iran.

Zainab al Ayyub is open about her gratitude. "We thank Iran, Hezbollah. We're grateful to anyone who is willing to help us and help Lebanon as well," she says.

Her family's house was destroyed by Israeli bombs during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, sparked when Hezbollah fighters killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others in a cross-border raid.

Israel responded with airstrikes and a ground invasion. Al Ayyub says her family received some compensation from Lebanon's government, but most of the help came from Hezbollah.

It's a story often told in areas of the country damaged by the war. Many say they are grateful to Hezbollah for the help to rebuild. Critics say it's Iranian money being handed out.

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt criticizes Hezbollah's ties to Iran and Syria. He accuses the party, with its armed militia, of acting like a state within a state.

"The Iranians have their branch in Lebanon - called Hezbollah," he says.

Hezbollah not only holds seats in parliament but, with its allies, holds 11 cabinet posts.

Nawar Sahili is a Hezbollah member of parliament. He denies the party is doing the bidding of its foreign supporters.

"Our relation with Syria and Iran is no secret, and we are proud of this relation," said Sahili, "but I can assure you that we do not apply Syrian policy or Iranian policy and we do not take orders from anybody outside of Lebanon."

Hezbollah was founded in 1982 as a response to Israel's invasion of the country. It was inspired by the Iranian Revolution and Islamic militancy, trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and supported by funding from Tehran.

Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in the year 2000 is credited by most Lebanese to Hezbollah and its guerrilla attacks on Israeli troops.

Hezbollah has also been linked to the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and to bomb attacks on two U.S. embassy buildings in 1983 and 1984. The United States and Israel say Hezbollah is a terrorist organization - a claim the group rejects.

Bassel Salloukh of the Lebanese American University in Beirut says the label is simplistic.

"Sometimes when you listen to officials in the American administration, you think that Hezbollah is a building, that if you bomb it then it will disappear," said Salloukh. "But Hezbollah is not a building; it is a section of Lebanese society, a very complex section with its deep networks in Lebanese society."

Hezbollah's base of support is still Lebanon's Shi'ite community, 35 percent of the country's population. They are concentrated in the south, in parts of Beirut and in the Bekaa Valley to the east.

Hezbollah runs schools, hospitals and mosques - and the Iranian influence is often visible. Strategic analyst Oussama Safa says the relationship suits Iran's wider ambitions.

"Iran sees itself as a regional superpower," says Safa. "It wants to challenge the other supposed region's superpowers in the region including Israel, and the so-called American islands of influence like Egypt and Saudi Arabia."

For families in southern Lebanon, like the al Ayyubs, Iran and Hezbollah are likely to keep their image as protectors.

"As long as we are here, Israel will be targeting us, so I don't feel secure," says Zainab al Ayyub. "I don't think we'll have peace."

Until real peace is established here, analysts say, the militant message will continue to find support.