To Counter Iran, Europe Must Pressure Hezbollah
Nine days after the United States accused Iran of attacking Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – known as the E3 – issued a statement agreeing with the American assessment and condemning Tehran. The statement was unusual for the European powers, highlighting not only Iran’s nuclear program – heretofore their near-exclusive focus – but also Tehran’s destabilization of the region.
Incongruously, however, France and Germany continue to empower Hezbollah, the vanguard of Iran’s regional expansionism, by maintaining the artificial distinction between its political and military “wings.” To curb Tehran’s destabilizing activities, Paris and Berlin must follow London’s example, and ban it from operating in any capacity in their territory.
A Distinction Without a Difference
Hezbollah’s composition does not justify the political vs. military “wing” distinction adopted France and Germany. The group maintains no internal compartmentalization separating its military from its political activities. As Hezbollah’s top leaders – including Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and his deputy Naim Qassem – have said, the group operates as a unified and symbiotic body which answers to a single supreme body, the Shura Council. As Qassem put it, “in Lebanon, there is only one Hezbollah. We have no ‘military wing’ and ‘political wing.’ We have no ‘Hezbollah’ and ‘the Party of Resistance…’ In short, it is [just] Hezbollah.”
This is not mere rhetoric. Elements of the group ostensibly under the control of its political “wing” feed directly into its military activities. Purely non-military activities – including its parliamentary participation or social services and charities – grow Hezbollah’s support base, furthering its entrenchment among Lebanese Shiites and providing it with a steady stream of military recruits.
As an example, entities controlled by the group’s non-military Executive Council, like the Islamic Resistance Support Association or the Martyr’s Association, funnel charitable donations and funds directly into its military apparatus. Moreover, Hezbollah’s large support base acts as the de facto guarantor of its military “wing,” preventing the Lebanese government from ever disarming the group for fear that such an action would stoke civil unrest or a civil war.
It’s unlikely that Paris and Berlin are unaware of Hezbollah’s unified nature. Instead, they maintain this fictional distinction based on several assumptions, which is ultimately misguided. Given Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanon’s parliament and government, they fear banning the group in its entirety will hinder bilateral relations with Beirut, and undermine the country’s fragile stability. In doing so, however, Paris and Berlin are conflating Hezbollah, an Iranian implant, with Lebanese Shiites, a legitimate Lebanese constituency that is slowly being usurped by the group to further Tehran’s interests. Ironically, this dynamic invites instability by isolating Beirut from its Arab allies as Hezbollah uses Lebanon as a platform for Iran’s power projection.
Nor has recognition of Hezbollah’s political apparatus as a legitimate non-state actor helped moderate the group. Hezbollah certainly acts pragmatically, but its ongoing regional adventurism on behalf of Iran – in Iraq since 2003, its involvement in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri, its entry into Syria in 2011, and more recently in Yemen – demonstrate that the group has not moderated.
Furthermore, though this artificial “wing” distinction also allows these countries – particularly Germany – to act as an intermediary in prisoner swaps or de-escalation of violence between Hezbollah and Israel, it ultimately furthers Hezbollah’s militancy. It inadvertently provides the group with a non-violent safety net to obtain its demands and walk back from the edge with the Israelis. Absent this mechanism, Hezbollah might be less inclined to commit terrorist acts if faced with the knowledge that it would inevitably face violent consequences.
By maintaining this distinction, France and Germany are also enabling Hezbollah to spread its influence beyond the confines of the Middle East. On European soil, as in Lebanon, Hezbollah uses its ostensibly non-military entities to recruit operatives for local cells and its uniformed cadres in Lebanon, fundraise for its operations, and build relations with both criminal and non-criminal actors.
Just last year, France shut down Centre Zahra France, an ostensibly Shiite religious organization whose founder was linked to Hezbollah, but which was stockpiling weapons. As is the case in Lebanon, Hezbollah likely uses such social organizations to obtain recruits for its local cells, like the one in Lyon, with which its Swedish-Lebanese operative Hossam Taleb Yaacoub – who participated in a plot to attack Israeli tourists – made contact in 2009.
France is also a lucrative market for Hezbollah’s illicit narcotics trade. In a wiretapped phone call, law enforcement agents heard Chekri Mahmoud Harb, a Lebanese drug dealer and money launderer affiliated with the group, speak nonchalantly about, “los[ing] a million euros in France.”
In Germany, several charitable organizations were discovered to have been fundraising locally for Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon. One 2019 intelligence report from Hamburg revealed that approximately 30 mosques and cultural associations – mainly involved in collecting donations and strengthening ties of local Lebanese with Hezbollah – were linked with the group, and that 1,050 of its supporters were present on German soil. An earlier report from 2017 indicated that roughly 950 Hezbollah operatives were fundraising and recruiting for the group in the country, with one organization alone – Al-Mustafa Community Center – drawing at least 800 people to its events.
Interestingly, in some of its counter-Hezbollah activities, Germany has tacitly admitted the linkage between the group’s purely social and political activities and their military actions. In 2014, Berlin shut down the Lebanon Orphan Children Project, which – like its Lebanese counterpart, the Martyr’s Foundation – financed the surviving dependents of Hezbollah’s fighters. Nonetheless, Berlin – like Paris – still refuses to ban the group in its entirety.
European powers are slowly coming to the realization that Iran cannot be made to act responsibly through accommodation. While the regime may act pragmatically at times, such activity is built into the nature of its ideology, which requires spreading its revolution. Hezbollah has served as the vanguard of this regional activity. By accommodating the group through artificially distinguishing between its “wings,” European powers are undercutting their own strategy to counter Iran.
David Daoud is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI)