US Policy Must Consider That Iran is a Direct Threat to the US
by Hanin Ghaddar*
In an interesting twist of events, and while Hezbollah-led Shiite militias in Syria went into direct confrontation with the US forces around the Tanf region, Hezbollah received two big blows in the United States only this past week. The two incidents seem distant and unrelated, but in the context of the US policy to contain Iran, they could signify some new US techniques against Hezbollah, or at least an approach that will not turn a blind eye to Iran’s terrorism.
On Thursday, the US Department of Justice confirmed that two American citizens were arrested in early June for planning attacks against Israeli and US targets in Panama and New York for Hezbollah. Also on Thursday, a US congressional committee met with four security experts to consider enhancing sanctions targeting Hezbollah’s financial network. Both of these events signify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and both call for serious measures to target the party.
ARREST OF HEZBOLLAH OPERATIVES RAISES CONCERNS
Regarding the arrests, Ali Kourani, 32, of the Bronx, New York, and Samer el Debek, 37, of Dearborn, Michigan, aka, “Samer Eldebek,” were arrested on Thursday, June 1, on charges related to their alleged activities on behalf of Hezbollah. According to the statement released by the Justice Department, the two men – recruited as Hezbollah operatives – allegedly received military-style training, including in the use of weapons like rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns for use in support of the group’s terrorist mission. At the direction of his Hezbollah handlers, El Debek allegedly conducted missions in Panama to locate the U.S. and Israeli Embassies and to assess the vulnerabilities of the Panama Canal and ships in the Canal. Kourani allegedly conducted surveillance of potential targets in America, including military and law enforcement facilities in New York City.
The two Hezbollah operatives conducted covert surveillance of potential targets, including U.S. military bases and Israeli military personnel here in New York City. Pre-operational surveillance is one of the hallmarks of Hezbollah in planning for future attacks. As alleged, Kourani, on at least two occasions, received sophisticated military training overseas, including the use of a rocket propelled grenade. In addition, El Debek is charged in an unrelated complaint, for allegedly possessing extensive bomb making training received from Hezbollah.
If anything, these arrests mean that Hezbollah hasn’t stopped forming and operating terrorists cells in the US, although they haven’t utilized them yet. Hezbollah has always worked preemptively, preparing for the worst case scenarios, with a long term strategy designed in Tehran. So even if Hezbollah hasn’t conducted serious terrorist attacks in the US for a long time – willingly permitting ISIS to take all the attention – it doesn’t mean that they haven’t stopped planning.
There’s a strategic reason why Hezbollah has been steering away from terrorist operations in the West in the past few years. During the negotiations of the Nuclear Deal with the West and afterwards, Iran wanted to play a different role and portray a different image, one that would make it look as if its regional operations are aimed at fighting against ISIS and terrorism in general. In reality, Iran’s Shiite militias in the region – mainly in Iraq and Syria – are there to fulfill an Iranian agenda of control and hegemony. But image is vital to shape public opinion and pretending to be part of the war against ISIS made Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, and all Shiite militias seem less dangerous than other Islamists groups in the region. Many in the West bought this and called for cooperation with Iran in Iraq and Syria, and even engaged Iran in any international discussion on diplomatic solutions. Russia certainly helped promote this agenda, and invited Iran to be part of the Astana talks.
But to make this work, Iran’s militias – mainly Hezbollah – had to restrain from conducting terrorist attacks in the West, primarily in the US. Any attack on Western interests would have brought Hezbollah back to the list of direct threats to the US or Europe. However, planning has never stopped, because Hezbollah knows that there will be a time – after Mosul or Raqqa, or when confrontation with the US in the region becomes an issue – when terrorist attacks will be reconsidered.
HEZBOLLAH AS GLOBAL CRIMINALS
This incident threw significant weight on the news and statements coming from the congressional hearing to discuss Hezbollah’s financial network. Rep. Ed Royce (R-California), the chairman of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee who called Thursday’s hearing, said that the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act (2014) was a “good start,” but that it needed enhancing, because Hezbollah has “developed a broad criminal network involved in a range of illegal activities – from drug trafficking to cigarette smuggling to money laundering to counterfeiting. These global terrorists double as global criminals.”
Matthew Levitt, the director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy stated during the hearing that the US should also resume sanctions against Iran for sponsoring Hezbollah, financially and militarily. “Without undermining the JCPOA, which is limited to nuclear development and proliferation, more vigorous action could be taken against Iranian entities such as the IRGC Quds Force, Mahan Air, and a host of others involved in Tehran’s support for terrorism,” Levitt added.
The panel insisted on the need to introduce additional tools to target Hezbollah’s resources and its ability to exploit the international financial system to its benefit. And it concluded with Chairman Royce saying that “Part II of this legislation is coming.”
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
It is still early to say when and if the Trump administration will finalize its strategy to contain Iran and its proxies. But meanwhile, it is not difficult to notice a more aggressive and confrontational attitude towards Iran. JCPOA is still in place, but it doesn’t mean that America and its allies’ interests are going to be sacrificed to maintain it.
In Syria, the US forces and the US-backed rebels are not ignoring Iran’s Shiite militias’ moves and military operations. A US aircraft shot down an Iranian-made drone that fired on coalition forces around Tanf, and more confrontation is expected as the Iran-backed militias have allegedly reached the border. At the same time, more sanctions against Hezbollah are on the table, probably designed to be more purposeful and continuous to hurt and restrict the party and its financial network.
Hezbollah has purposely taken a break from terrorism activities in the West and focused on the Middle East, but it seems that Hezbollah did not really stop. That is exactly why the fight against ISIS should not marginalize the fight against Hezbollah and other Shiite militias backed by Iran. Enhancing sanctions to target Hezbollah and other groups seems to be one way of doing this, but will it be enough to disrupt Hezbollah in Syria and contain Iran in the region? Not if the danger is as imminent.
With Russia’s help, Iran and its militias are fulfilling their plans at a very speedy pace, while policy making takes much longer. Now that it is clear that Hezbollah was planning to target the US, policy needs to consider Iran’s looming threat, and the fact that like ISIS, Iran’s militias are also a direct threat to the US. Maybe then, a policy to fight ISIS in Syria will turn into a more comprehensive strategy to the war against terror, in all its forms.
Accordingly, Iran should not be allowed to fight ISIS in the upcoming Deir Ezzour battle– knowing that its real target is ISIS-controlled territories. Iran should not be allowed anywhere near the Iraq-US borders. Iran should not be allowed to take Mosul after ISIS is defeated. Iran should not be allowed on any negotiation table, whether Russia wants it or not. But most importantly, Iran’s Syrian proxy, Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, should be eliminated in order to cut off any possibility of legalizing Iran’s presence or power in Syria.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy