Time for Europe to Come to Terms with Hezbollah and Iranian Terrorism

November 10, 2020
Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (R), visits with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad October 14, 2010 at the Iranian embassy in Bir Hassan southern Beirut, Lebanon. (Photo by Hezbollah Media Office via Getty Images)

On a late Thursday evening in September 1992, in the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin, Germany, a small group of armed Iranian and Lebanese operatives burst into a Greek restaurant and fatally shot Sadegh Sharafkani, leader of the Iranian Democratic Party of Kurdistan, and three of his associates.

Iranian agents had murdered Sharafkani’s predecessor, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, three years earlier in Vienna, Austria.

Tehran’s sordid history of attacks against dissidents in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s is the tip of the iceberg. According to the U.S. State Department fact sheet, the Iranian regime carried out assassinations and terrorist attacks in more than 40 countries since the Islamic Republic came into power in 1979.

In recent years, Tehran stepped up these deadly operations on European soil once again. In October 2020, for example, Belgian authorities charged an Iranian diplomat based in Austria for conspiring to commit terrorism by bombing the rally of an Iranian opposition group in Villepinte, France. In 2018, Albania expelled the Iranian ambassador to the country for “supporting terrorism” against Iranian dissidents. That same year, authorities arrested a Norwegian citizen for conducting surveillance for Iranian intelligence, which was planning to attack Ahwazi Iranian opposition leaders in Denmark. And in the Netherlands, Dutch officials suspect Tehran is behind the murders of regime opponents Mohammad-Reza Kolahi Samadi in Almere in 2015 and Ahmad Mola Nissi in The Hague in 2017.

The Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah, backed by Iran since its inception in the 1980s, has further expanded Iran’s web of terror across Europe. In 2012, for example, a Hezbollah suicide attacker used ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer also used as a potent explosive, to bomb a tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing six civilians. In 2015, Cypriot authorities arrested a Hezbollah operative for storing over eight tons of ammonium nitrate meant for terrorist attacks. Most recently, in August 2020, a massive store of ammonium nitrate ignited and tore through the center of Beirut, Lebanon; the ship that transported the ammonium nitrate has been linked to a Hezbollah-affiliated bank, raising suspicions that its use was intended for bombs.

Nathan Sales, the U.S. State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism, recently warned that Hezbollah has smuggled ammonium nitrate into France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, raising concerns that the explosion in Beirut might be repeated in a European city.

Despite a plethora of evidence of Hezbollah’s dangerous activities across Europe, the EU distinguishes between the group’s military wing and political wing, only labeling the former a terrorist group.

This year, however, European advocates for blacklisting Hezbollah have made notable progress. In January, the U.K. Treasury announced financial asset freezes against Hezbollah’s political wing, following the country’s blacklisting of Hezbollah last year. In April, Germany followed suit with a full ban. Lithuania, Estonia, Serbia, Kosovo, and the Czech Republic have since announced similar measures. Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia are now considering a comprehensive ban. (Notably, the Netherlands banned Hezbollah in its entirety and has called for the EU to blacklist the group since 2004.) Many European countries, however, rely on the EU’s terrorism list to compose their blacklists.

The EU should join the United States, the Arab League, Canada, Israel, and a growing number of European and Latin American states to designate all of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The distinction between military and political branches is artificial: Hezbollah is a unified and hierarchical organization ultimately reporting to its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. As Matthew Levitt and others have extensively documented, Hezbollah operatives engage in money laundering, arms procurement, and criminal enterprises, including even narcotics trafficking — all under the noses of European authorities.

A comprehensive ban would give European states the legal tools they need to shut down illicit activities and organizations posing as legitimate entities. In 2014, for  example, German authorities discovered that the virtuously named charity “Orphaned Children Project-Lebanon” was actually a front for a group that raised 3.3 million euros for Hezbollah’s terrorist activities.

A comprehensive ban would give European states the legal tools they need to shut down illicit activities and organizations posing as legitimate entities.

To protect their citizens and maintain security, European policymakers should confront Iran as well. Fortunately, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany already have significant leverage against Tehran. Under intense pressure from the pandemic and U.S. sanctions, the Iranian rial is at historic lows against the U.S. dollar and the euro. The steep drop in oil prices this past year has added to the economic burden on the regime.

Although these three European countries are eager to keep Tehran in the Iran Nuclear Deal (from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018), they must not let these negotiations overshadow the issue of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. The leading European powers in the U.N. Security Council have already abstained from a U.S.-led vote to extend the arms embargo on Iran.

Why should sanctions relief be on the table so long as Iran uses its operatives and proxies to assassinate dissidents and plan terrorist attacks on European soil? Before Iran and Hezbollah shed further blood, European leaders would be wise to draw a red line and enforce it.

Saving the nuclear deal or negotiating a new one will not necessarily stop Iranian and Iran-backed terrorism in the West. Only meaningful diplomatic and economic pressure tethered to this issue — along with banning Hezbollah — can pressure Tehran to halt state-sponsored violence.

Siamak Kordestani is a former aide to Rep. Brad Sherman and the House Foreign Affairs Committee and now is West Coast Director of Friends of the European Leadership Network (ELNET).

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.