by Eldar Mamedov
When President Donald Trump threatened not to waive sanctions on the nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) unless the agreement´s supposed flaws were “fixed,” he also issued a number of demands directed specifically at European allies. One of them was that the EU put the Lebanese organization Hezbollah on the terrorist list. At the moment, just Hezbollah’s military wing is on the list. Trump demanded that the EU extend the designation to all of Hezbollah including its political wing.
This is not a new demand. It long predates the transatlantic dispute over the JCPOA. Congress and lobby organizations such as the American Jewish Committee have been pushing the EU to take this step for years.
The distinction between Hezbollah´s military and political wings is a result of a compromise painstakingly worked out between the EU member states in 2013. The formal reason for blacklisting Hezbollah was its alleged bombing of an Israeli tourist bus in the Bulgarian town of Burgas in July 2012. Although some indications indeed point to Hezbollah, the Bulgarians have not provided conclusive evidence either now or at the time of the designation.
The designation itself took place in July 2013, shortly after Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah announced that the organization was involved in a military effort in Syria on behalf of the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad. That announcement accelerated the hitherto half-hearted designation process in the Council of the EU representing the governments of the member states. According to the people involved, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius took a particularly hard line, pushing for Hezbollah’s blacklisting as a way to punish the group for its role in Syria. Considering that the French were among the most gung-ho about regime change in Damascus, this should not be surprising.
However, the EU had to balance the urge to punish Hezbollah against the reality of Lebanon, where Hezbollah was an influential social and political actor. Blacklisting it completely would cut the EU off from any contacts with the organization. That would have led to a subsequent loss of influence and leverage in Lebanon as a whole. This was a risk that the EU could not run, especially as it struggled to help Lebanon cope with two million Syrian refugees who otherwise could have headed to Europe and contributed to the deepening political crisis there.
Therefore, the EU seized on an ingenious formula to separate Hezbollah’s military wing from its political one. The decision to put the military wing on the terror list was accompanied by a political declaration that made it clear that it “will not prevent the continuation of political dialogue with all political parties in Lebanon,” a clear reference to Hezbollah.
Although this distinction may be somewhat artificial, there is little appetite in the EU to tinker with it. One reason for the reluctance is that the position of Hezbollah has only become more powerful four years after the designation. Its involvement in Syria may have cost it the soft power it won in the Sunni Arab world thanks to its opposition to Israel. But at the same time, many in Lebanon—not just its core Shiite constituency but also many Christians and even secularists of various hues—saw Hezbollah as a bulwark against the so-called Islamic State and like-minded Salafi jihadist groups.
The ham-fisted Saudi attempt to marginalize Hezbollah by engineering Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s short-lived resignation also played into the Shiite organization’s hands, by allowing it to assume the mantle of a defender of Lebanese sovereignty and dignity against unscrupulous foreign meddling. Relations between the notionally pro-Saudi Hariri and Hezbollah are now closer than ever. In these circumstances, blacklisting Hezbollah, a coalition member in the Lebanese government and a key ally of the country’s Christian president Michel Aoun, would risk pushing the EU to the brink of severing diplomatic relations with Lebanon.
Another reason for the EU to tread cautiously is the participation of many member states in the UNIFIL mission in the south of Lebanon, established after the war of 2006 to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah. The Trump administration, through its UN ambassador Nikki Haley, tried to toughen up the UNIFIL mandate in the Security Council in August 2017 to make it more intrusive and aggressive against Hezbollah’s alleged military build-up in south Lebanon. This effort has succeeded only modestly, notably due to the opposition of European nations such as France. No new attempts to revise the UNIFIL mandate were undertaken since then.
To be sure, there are voices in the EU that would follow the American lead in designating Hezbollah a terrorist organization in its entirety. Two member states, the UK and Netherlands, have already done so. Around 60 members of the European Parliament (EP) have reportedly sent an open letter to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urging her to follow suit EU-wide. However, this amounts to less than 10% of the members of the house.
Much more representative of the perceptions of the terrorist threat in Europe was the report adopted on February 28 on targeting the financing of jihadist terrorism. The report, drafted by Javier Nart, a Spanish MEP from the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE), identifies only the Islamic State and al-Qaeda and their associates as terrorist organizations, and “individuals and institutions in the Gulf” as sources of their financing. In the whole report, adopted by 533 MEPs against 24, there is not a single mention of Hezbollah or Iran. Although the report is non-binding for the EU executive, it carries the political weight of an official position of the EP, the only EU institution elected directly by the citizens of 28 member states.
Everything related to the Middle East politics is notoriously volatile. But for now it looks unlikely that the EU will satisfy Trump’s demand to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization in its entirety.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament. Photo: Javier Nart.