Hezbollah and the Terror-Crime Nexus

Image Credits: Foreign Policy illustration and Getty Images

As the US security apparatus continues to publicly focus on Iran’s expansion in the Middle East, it has done little to actively address the threat posed from Iran’s favorite proxy, Hezbollah, on the southern border. Hezbollah has been known to operate international money laundering and drug trafficking operations via Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico for years. These operations, other than, notably, the Lebanese Canadian Bank case, have most often been prosecuted as drug-related crimes, rather than crimes of terrorism.

Hezbollah’s drug enterprise is not separate from its terrorist activity. Hezbollah, as directed by Iran, began engaging in the drug trade from its inception in the 1980’s, “for Satan—America and the Jews. If we cannot kill them with guns, so we will kill them with drugs.” As such, the American strategy of prosecuting drug crimes connected to Hezbollah as just that, rather than as crimes of terror shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Hezbollah’s motives.

According to a 2018 CDC study, cocaine was involved in 19.4% of drug overdose deaths in 2016— cocaine which has often made its way into the US via Hezbollah channels. In recent years, the spike in prescription drug related deaths has led the Trump administration to declare a national emergency. The opioid epidemic has at least partially driven the decline in US life expectancy, and opioid overdose victims are often found to have also taken cocaine.

The CDC study claims that in 2016 alone, more than 10,000 Americans died from drug overdoses involving cocaine; that number is more than three times the amount of Americans that died in 9/11. When you take into account the stated goal of Hezbollah to use drugs as weapons to neutralize its enemies, one wonders why the American government has yet to address this activity with the same severity as it does traditional acts of terror.

There is a law on the books that could have been used to prosecute this enterprise: the United States enacted a federal terror financing statute in 1994 after 1993’s World Trade Center bombing, under which entities can be prosecuted for knowingly providing “material support or resources” to another entity to conduct terror operations.

While money laundering can often remove the evidence needed to prosecute terror financing under the 1993 statue, the proof uncovered by the Project Cassandra task force directly ties the drug trafficking funds to Hezbollah. However, up until now, the failure to do so appears to be political, as the Obama administration allegedly did not want to engender bad faith during the Iran deal negotiations.

This has resulted in severe immediate threats to US homeland security. In May, a New York court indicted Ali Kourani, a naturalized US citizen and Hezbollah operative who allegedly attempted to identify Israeli targets in New York and obtain information on John F. Kennedy International Airport security protocols. Prior to setting up shop in New York, Kourani was previously involved with a dealership in Michigan that sold used cars to Benin; it is not unlikely this business was part of the network of used car dealerships used to launder Hezbollah’s drug profits.

Even as the United States aims to keep tensions away from its soil by announcing its intent to establish a military coalition to protect commercial shipping vessels in the waters surrounding Yemen and Iran, it leaves its doorstep unguarded by failing to take direct action against these networks.

Now that the current administration has pulled out of the deal, and is faced with rising tensions from Iran, the next move should be to go after Hezbollah’s crime-terror infrastructure under terror financing laws. Project Cassandra amassed the evidence; the Trump administration should use it to protect US citizens and put pressure on Iran.

US-Iran Relations No Longer Have Use for Sanctions

Image Credit: Gulf News

All is not well on the eastern front, as Iranian-American relations have hit their lowest point in decades.

The current round of escalation began on June 20th, when it was reported that Iran shot down an American drone over the Straits of Hormuz, in international waters. In response, the United States prepared to retaliate against three Iranian targets. However, the attack was called off at the last minute by President Donald Trump, allegedly because of the estimated death toll. Instead, the US response included cyber attacks and new sanctions on Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, preventing them from using international fiscal institutions. While the cyber attacks have been described as a “game changer,” the sanctions are frankly an ineffective stick in the US policy deck of cards.

It would be an understatement to describe the new sanctions as “unsurprising,” as every US president since Jimmy Carter (barring George H.W. Bush) has imposed sanctions on Iran in response to its unacceptable behavior. In recent years, sanctions have been imposed with the intent of creating an economic chokehold that would force Iran to halt its nuclear program.

However, it appears this tactic is ineffective, as countries such as China continue to buy Iranian oil in violation of the sanctions. Iranian citizens mocked them, one of them declaring, “The only people left to sanction are me, my dad and our neighbor’s kid.” Furthermore, just a week after the newest sanctions were imposed, Iran announced it had exceeded the enriched uranium limit previously imposed by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Deal.

Whereas in the past the United States may have responded to events such as the Russian invasion of Crimea, or the use of chemical weapons in Syria with military force, the generational trauma of Iraq and Afghanistan have made the Obama and Trump administrations reluctant to use force, for fear of entering into another seemingly endless, unpopular war. As a result, unfriendly ambitious states such as China take advantage of the United States’ retreat from its role as the world’s policeman to further territorial ambitions without fear of violent escalation with the world’s most powerful army.

A decade of avoiding confrontation with rising powers, even in circumstances in which the use of force could have been legitimate, has undermined US deterrence credibility. Iran is now emboldened to upend the status quo, violating international law by shooting down the drone over what were technically international waters; enriching uranium despite anti-proliferation norms; and, increasingly worrisome, growing Iranian military presence in strategic areas in its regional neighborhood.

The sanctions policy has become reflexive and ineffective, as only part of the world abides by them; releasing new ones is widely viewed as symbolic, and has no real deterrence value. If the United States and its allies wish to maintain an international order based on democratic values, sovereignty, and diplomacy, they must give up the façade of national and personal sanctions. Instead, the threat of retaliatory cyberattacks, like the one carried out in response to the drone attack, must become the new US deterrence against states violating international norms.

The Hezbollah Dilemma

On March 22, American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Lebanon to convince countries in the region to join the United State with enacting harsh sanctions against Iran. The US believes that Iran is funding terrorist organizations around the world and believes it must be stopped.

Under the Trump administration, the US has been hard against Iran by increasing sanctions and pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Pompeo discussed Hezbollah with the Lebanese government. According to Pompeo, Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and will start wars, end democracy in Lebanon, and allow Iran to rule it.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri understand the United States’ perspective with the issue of Hezbollah, but they view Hezbollah as a legitimate party organization, not terrorists.

Hezbollah has 70 of the 128 seats in the Lebanese Parliament and has gained momentum in recent years. However, the US continues to sanction them and Iran. President Aoun has said that even though these sanctions target Hezbollah, Lebanon suffers as well. Pompeo says that if the Lebanese government helps him, the US will help Lebanon.

The issue Lebanon faces is quite difficult because Hezbollah is an important actor since the Lebanese Civil War. Their military power is also important because they help defend Lebanon against its enemies, such as Israel.

Lebanon does not want to cut ties with the US but they cannot afford to lose an important military and political actor. But Hezbollah is not just invested into Lebanon, they also have a presence in Syria and support Al-Assad militarily. This is also a conflict of interest for the United States.

In previous administrations, they have all condemned Hezbollah and deemed them to be a terrorist group, but no other president has been so severe against the group and Iran than Trump.

This dilemma has been shrugged off year after year by both the Americans and the Lebanese, but it could change today. The economy of Lebanon could suffer under the sanctions posed on Hezbollah; thus, forcing the Lebanese to change their political affiliations with the group.

The country has not been this stable in decades. Lebanon is open for commerce, tourism, and development. They do not want Hezbollah to be in the way of being more connected with the rest of the world.


Nick Webb is the Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.

 

Iran and Saudi Arabia: Funding Terrorism

The Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qassemi said, “Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of fundamentalist ideology and a source of organized international terrorism, lacks competence and credit to accuse other countries of terrorism.” Qassemi said this in response to Saudi Arabia’s Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s comments in a press conference in Pakistan that accused Iran of funding terrorists. He calls out the Saudis hypocrisy of calling an end to terrorism with one hand while funding it with another.

This press release by Iran is quite interesting because it shows that the proxy conflict with Iran and Saudi Arabia is still alive and well. Iran is making it seem like Saudi Arabia threw the first punch at Iran. It is essentially a blame game for who is allowing terrorists to thrive in the Middle East and North Africa. It is no secret that Iran funds terrorist organizations.

They created the group during the Lebanese Civil War and during the Israeli occupation in the south of Lebanon. Iran funds Hezbollah to commit terrorist attacks on Israel and other targets in Lebanon to create the proxy Islamic Republic. Iran notices the power and more openness of Saudi Arabia to the West, so it uses terrorist to disrupt systems in the Middle East to prevent Westernization and Saudi reach/power. Iran has made great strides doing this because they have more control in Lebanon through Hezbollah with a growing movement in the country, as well as more power in Syria with supporting radical Shi’a groups.

It is no surprise that Iran funds terrorism, but Saudi Arabia is not so innocent either. Both states are at fault for supporting and funding terrorist organizations. Reports show that Saudi Arabia has funded terrorist organizations in Yemen to support their efforts in the Yemeni civil war.

It is almost comical that both states go back and forth for blaming each other for supporting terrorists when they both are at fault. They simply blame the other and reassure the public that they do not support terrorism. Yes, of course, they kill terrorists and support the West in this regard. They continue to aid them as well. It seems that there is no answer and ending the Saudi-Iran sour relations due to their control of proxies through the region.

The only way to really create change would be through regime change if that is a revolution or peaceful succession of a more liberal leader. Neither of these tends to be in sight because at the end of the day both want full control of the Middle East and North Africa. They will both continue to aid terrorist groups and publicly mudsling each other.

This Cold War type conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is difficult because it is multi-faceted. It impacts the entire region including countries like Syria and beyond with countries like the US/EU and Russia. The best way to deescalate the conflict is for larger powers, such as the US, to call out Iran and Saudi Arabia for supporting terrorism.

Saudi Arabia should be punished like Iran from the US and its allies by imposing sanctions or to cut military aid. The US punishing and isolating Iran will only further the proxy/cold war conflict in the Middle East.

It is also a national security risk for the US and any other country, including America’s adversaries like Russia and China to allow Saudi Arabia and Iran to fund terrorist.

In the present time, it might be helpful to continue this aiding, but in the long-term, these terrorist groups can create damage and harm Americans. For example, in the 1980s when the US helped arm the Mujahidin during the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Some of those fighters joined organizations that the US considers a major terror threat today. The US needs to take a different direction regarding Saudi Arabia and Iran to prevent inefficiency and furthering the deaths of innocent people.

Photo Credit: RadioFreeEurope/Radio Library

Does Designating the IRGC as a FTO Help or Hurt the US?

IRGC troops marching during the anniversary of the 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in Tehran

Photo Credit: RadioFreeEurope/Radio Library

On April 8, 2019, President Trump designated Iran’s most powerful security organization, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). He believed it was necessary as America has already labeled Iran a state sponsor of terrorism. This is the first time that the United States has ever designated another government entity as an FTO. In response to this designation, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) ordered that American troops in the Middle-East be designated as terrorists.

According to Daniel Benjamin and Jason M. Blazakis, two experts in terrorism and counterterrorism, designating the IRGC as an FTO was unprecedented and counterproductive. They stated that “FTO designations are supposed to be apolitical and preventative.”

The Trump administration didn’t act immediately to these attacks, therefore making this designation seem more as a punishment for Iran’s retroactive actions rather than focusing on other factors that pose a terrorist threat to the United States. Before imposing this designation on the IRGC, there have been executive orders long predating this Administration that have been taken by the State Department allowing the US to take further legal and financial actions against Iran.

The current policy states that the US will continue to place maximum pressure through sanctions to manipulate Iran to change its behavior. It’s hard to say when diplomatic relations will be restored but the US has rebuilt its relationship with both the Soviet Union and China.

The Secretary of State should revoke the designation within a specific time frame. The United States has a list of conditions for a policy change with Iran that include a revised nuclear deal and normalization of US relations. If the US and the Iranian government can engage in conversation within this time frame, it could leave room for negotiations.

There could be a significant backlash because of the absence of proper reasoning for this FTO designation. Benjamin and Blazakis believe that American troops in Iraq and Syria could be attacked by Iran. Others state that Tehran’s participation in the 2015 nuclear deal can’t stop Iran from retaliating in domains outside of proliferation. They could detain and imprison US citizens, assassinate people, and harass American ships in the Persian Gulf, or even exploring in the cyber realm.

Due to this being the first time that the United States has designated a foreign country’s government entity as an FTO, it should have been examined more closely. Rather than keeping the IRGC designated as an FTO, maybe the Administration should look at reopening dialogue with Iran. Having an open conversation on revoking the designation on the IRGC in return of some negotiation may lead to less or no negative effects toward the United States.