After a U.S. missile killed Iranian QUDS Force General Qasem Soleimani on January 3, the region erupted in chaos. The Iranians launched a missile attack on the U.S. military base in Ain al-Assad, Iraq. Iranian military forces then shot down a civilian airliner from Ukraine, killing all 176 people aboard—Iran claimed it was a mistake.
Rumors of war spread, as protesters filled the streets in Baghdad and Tehran. Two days later, Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of the terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon called for Shiite militias to attack U.S. military targets.
Nasrallah praised the Iranian missile attack on the Ain al-Asad U.S. military base in Iraq. According to a translation by the Lebanese Naharnet outlet, Nasrallah, in a January 5 speech, said, “The Americans will leave our region humiliated, defeated and terrified.”
His speech brought into focus the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran. For decades, Hezbollah has portrayed itself as a political organization that helps widows and orphans in Beirut, a city torn apart by war and civil strife for half a century. In 2018, Hezbollah and its coalition won 71 of 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament.
A Shiite Muslim organization, Hezbollah claims its relationship with Iran is based on religious and cultural ties.
The reality is far different.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Nasrallah, who does not hold an official public office in Lebanon, has shaped Hezbollah into the dominant political power in Lebanon and drives Hezbollah’s military operations—a euphemism for terrorist activities.
Since Nasrallah took over leadership of Hezbollah in 1982, he has claimed that his political wing is separate from Hezbollah’s global terrorist operations. In May 2018, however, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called Nasrallah’s claim a “false distinction” and imposed financial sanctions on Nasrallah and other top Hezbollah officials. The U.S. order called Nasrallah a “Specially Designated Terrorist.”
In his January speech, made from an undisclosed location in Beirut, Nasrallah said, “The suicide attackers who forced Americans to leave from our region in the past are still here and their numbers have increased.”
His remarks were a likely reference to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. The 1st Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment was sent to Lebanon in 1982 by President Reagan to help quell growing terrorist activity in the country.
During the early morning of October 23, 1983, a 19-ton Mercedes truck packed with explosives rammed through the front gate of a compound housing the Americans, killing 220 Marines, 18 Navy sailors, and three Army soldiers. More than 100 servicemen were injured.
Ten minutes later, another explosives-filled truck crashed into a building housing soldiers of France’s 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment, killing 58 paratroopers.
After sorting out conflicting claims of responsibility for the Beirut bombings, U.S. investigators determined that Hezbollah was responsible for the attacks. Since Nasrallah assumed leadership of Hezbollah in 1982, it is highly likely that he ordered the attacks.
The State Department, in its annual 2018 “Country Reports on Terrorism,” said “Iran remains the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism,” and supports Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Jihad. The U.S. State Department has designated all three as terrorist organizations.
Hezbollah’s future terrorist activities depend heavily on funding. Its financial sources include Lebanese business groups, private individuals, and taxes paid by the Shia Lebanese. Its main source, however, has been Iran. In 2018, U.S. Treasury officials estimated that Iran gives Hezbollah $700 million a year.
Iran’s ability to continue its funding of Hezbollah is now in question, since President Trump in 2018 announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the “Iran nuclear deal.”
Iran had benefitted financially from the deal, orchestrated by former President Obama. On Jan. 17, 2016, the day after four American detainees were released by Iran, a U.S. jet carrying $400 million in euros, Swiss francs and other currencies landed in Iran. Soon after, $1.3 billion in cash followed. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told Congress that Iran would receive a total of between $25 billion and $50 billion from the deal.
U.S. intelligence officials believe that some of that money was explicitly used to fund terrorism, while other funds ended up in the bank accounts of corrupt Iranian leaders.
Since President Trump ended the JCPOA, the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions targeting Iran’s energy, financial, shipping, and shipbuilding industries. As a consequence of the sanctions, unemployment has skyrocketed in Iran, and demonstrations against the regime have erupted throughout Iran in recent months.
With Iran’s financial support in doubt, Hezbollah may have to resume—or accelerate—its ties with drug cartels in South America. In 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency arrested four members of Hezbollah on charges of selling cocaine in the U.S. and Europe to fund Hezbollah operations in Syria and Lebanon.
According to the DEA, Hezbollah began exporting operatives in the 1980s to the tri-border region of South America, where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet. Hezbollah targeted the region because many Arab immigrants fled Lebanon and settled in the area during the civil war of the 1970s. The Muslim population in the tri-border area is estimated to be around 30,000 people.
In 2008, the DEA launched Project Cassandra, after investigators concluded that Hezbollah had transformed itself into an international crime syndicate, collecting $1 billion a year from drug and weapons trafficking. For eight years, agents used informants, wiretaps and undercover operations to uncover Hezbollah’s network, according to reporting by Politico and testimony before Congress by former DEA and Treasury department officials.
DEA agents traced the conspiracy to the top leadership of Hezbollah and its state sponsors in Iran. However, the investigation was hamstrung by the Obama administration, which was trying to negotiate the Iran nuclear deal.
During congressional testimony in 2017, Katherine Bauer, an Obama-era Treasury Department official, said the Hezbollah investigations conducted by the DEA during the Obama administration “were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing the nuclear deal.”
U.S. investigators found evidence linking Hezbollah with Mexican and Columbian drug cartels and high level officials in the Syrian, Russian, and Venezuelan governments. When DEA investigators sought approval for more significant investigations, prosecutions, arrests, and financial sanctions, officials at Justice and Treasury departments delayed or rejected their requests, during the last two years of the Obama administration.
The roadblocks were the result of Obama’s promise in 2009 to improve relations with Iran as part of a broader rapprochement with the Muslim world. In May 2010, John Brennan, Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor and then CIA director, said in a speech that the administration was looking for ways to build up “moderate elements” within Hezbollah.
Obama announced the final agreement on the Iran nuclear deal on Jan. 17, 2016. A few months later, Project Cassandra was dismantled. As a result, U.S. investigators lost valuable insights into Hezbollah’s illicit operations with top officials in the Iranian, Syrian, Venezuelan and Russian governments—including presidents Nicolas Maduro, Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin.
If U.S. economic sanctions against Iran continue, Hezbollah may be tempted to look back to South America for illicit ways to replenish its finances. Regardless of where Hezbollah obtains its funds, it is highly likely that the organization will continue to wage terrorism, in concert with Iran.
(For more insight into Hezbollah’s illicit operations in South America, read my novel, The Nexus.)