Germany is right to see Hezbollah for what it really is

More countries need to recognise that the Iranian-backed group is indeed a terror outfit with a political front

epa08392900 A police officer carrying a box walks out of a Al-Irschad association building during a raid in Berlin, Germany, 30 April 2020. The German Interior Ministry announced on the day that it has banned Iran-backed Hezbollah activity on German soil and designated it a terrorist organization. Police conducted early morning raids on mosque associations in several federal states, media reported.  EPA/CLEMENS BILAN
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On Thursday, Germany joined the US, UK and a number of other countries, including members of the Arab League, in designating Hezbollah a terrorist entity. This decision means banning all activities carried out by the group on German soil. The Interior Ministry in Berlin also confirmed that police had conducted early morning raids to detain suspected Hezbollah operatives.

Germany's decision is a welcome one. It comes five months after the Bundestag – Germany's legislature – approved a motion calling on the country's authorities to put a stop to Hezbollah's local activities. It also represents a significant step within the international community towards curbing the influence of a rogue operator that has for years window-dressed itself as a responsible political actor in Lebanon. In reality, Hezbollah has been little else but an armed proxy for Tehran's wider geopolitical interests, holding Lebanese politics – and the Lebanese state – hostage. It has also succeeded in spreading its tentacles across the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, including within the European Union and even Latin America.

These new developments then amount to yet another setback for Iran, which is already saddled with an economy battered by US-led sanctions in response to its illegal nuclear and ballistic programmes, as well as its military adventurism in the region. The regime has often relied upon on the EU to act as an interlocutor between itself and Washington in its bid to get sanctions relief. Now, the largest EU member state has sent an extraordinary signal that there is a limit to European patience with Iran's broader extremist agenda.

Perhaps the most immediate hit to Hezbollah will be financial. Already set to lose 40 per cent of its income from Iran after the dramatic fall in oil prices as a result of coronavirus, Hezbollah's ability to raise funds from its activities in Europe, including its running of fake orphanages, will be significantly hampered.

There is also a renewed spotlight on Hezbollah's decades-long cloak-and-dagger operations, which include terror plots across the Middle East and the world, and a range of illegal activities from money-laundering to drug-smuggling. It has become an integral part of a global nexus between rogue states and organised crime. In Venezuela, for instance, Hezbollah has been linked to Caracas's newly appointed oil minister, Tareck El Aissami, a man accused of a host of illicit activities by the US State Department.

FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab speaks to the media outside Beirut's international airport, Lebanon April 5, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab has the backing of Hezbollah. Reuters

Worryingly, despite its transgressions, Hezbollah has been able to use its status as the dominant political party within the Lebanese parliament to garner some political legitimacy abroad. Its status in Beirut, where it is a significant backer of the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, gives it the look of one among many parties operating within the confines of a national political system. But Hezbollah runs its own militias, who not only enforce its power in certain parts of Lebanon, but also conduct independent operations in neighbouring Syria, where they support President Bashar Al Assad, and further afield in Iraq. These units often answer directly to senior commanders of the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Berlin had previously made a distinction between Hezbollah’s political arm and its military units. But the two are by no means cleanly separated, and the sooner more countries recognise this, the better the outcome will be for the victims of Hezbollah’s activities. It would also present a victory for proponents of the rule of law; states should have a monopoly on the use of force, not individual political parties. If this is well understood now in Berlin, perhaps someday it will be understood just as well in Beirut.