In recent years, the Iranian regime and its terror proxy Hizbullah have conducted ideological and political warfare against Israel in Europe.
While the European Union has outlawed Hizbullah’s military wing, the European Union and nearly all member states have refused to outlaw Hizbullah’s political wing. EU lawmakers have permitted Iranian regime and Hizbullah demonization hate speech and have refused to pursue anti-terror legislation, or properly monitor and prosecute Iranian, Hizbullah, and Hamas-affiliated nonprofit organizations.
EU fears over possible reprisals by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force and Hizbullah operatives and concerns over burgeoning and radicalizing Muslim populations in France, Italy, and the United Kingdom have compounded the challenge to Europe.
Some European leaders fear that failing to outlaw Hizbullah’s military and political wings as a single organization may well result in Iran and Hizbullah targeting Europe itself. The 2013 Hizbullah suicide bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria, is a reminder.
As recently as July 2018, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat, reported to be the head of intelligence in the Iranian embassy in Vienna, for allegedly masterminding a bombing in Paris. This terror plot was foiled by the Belgian security forces, who arrested two Belgian-Iranian nationals.1
As this article reveals, the implications of Europe’s slack response to Iran’s and Hizbullah’s political operations across Europe are too far-reaching to ignore.
Since the early 1980s, Iran has used terror and political warfare against Europe. In 1983, Iran-backed terror groups carried out suicide bombings against French and American military personnel, as well as French, American, Italian, and British peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, killing more than 400. Iran-backed Hizbullah also kidnapped British, French, American, Swiss, and West German civilians.
In Europe, as early as 1983, France’s internal security service revealed that Iranian regime propaganda was “circling clandestinely in the immigrant workers’ centers or their mosques, engaging in violent criticism of the socialist government of France, attacking the social, economic, and financial policy of the president of the Republic as well as his pro-Zionist and anti-Arab international policy.”2
The Shiite Iranian regime worked to recruit Sunni minorities in France, the United Kingdom, and West Germany for Hizbullah terror operations. Many of these recruits were immigrants from Turkey, North Africa, and South Asia. After receiving training in Iran, many returned to their home countries or recruited terror operatives via regime-sponsored sites hidden in mosques and cultural centers.3 By the early 1990s, the Islamic Republic had established a fully-developed Western European terrorist network.4
Hizbullah and Western Europe
By the 1990s, Iranian regime-backed terror against Europeans and its propaganda networks in Europe became firmly rooted. Author Ronen Bergman noted that “Iran helped raise money for Hizbullah in Germany, Britain, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and Holland.”5 Britain also warned Hizbullah to cut ties with the Irish Republican Army, including funding for weapons and possible training.6 In 1996, German and Belgian authorities discovered advanced weaponry and ammunition in an Iranian cargo ship intended to attack Jewish and Israeli targets in Europe.7
Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom have outlawed Hizbullah’s military wing. However, these EU member states have allowed Hizbullah’s political wing to operate, arguing that Hizbullah could moderate.8 European diplomats witnessed a “stunning” electoral victory by Hizbullah in Lebanon’s 1992 elections in which, as Arab analyst Nizar Hamzeh notes, Hizbullah “concentrated more on the ballot box than on bullets and military victories.”9
Believing Hizbullah is a legitimate political party in Lebanon, European government officials have been hesitant to ban Hizbullah’s political activity in Europe, including demonstrations in European cities. Hizbullah operatives have exploited Europe’s hesitation and have used Europe as a preferred site for arms procurement, recruitment, logistics, and fundraising, taking advantage of the continent’s open societies and borders.10
Ironically, Hizbullah leaders such as Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem have publicly rejected any differences between Hizbullah’s political and military wings. Qassem stated in 2012, “We don’t have a military wing and a political one; we don’t have Hizbullah on the one hand and the resistance party on the other.”11 Both wings follow the directives of the Vilayat-e-faqih, or the rule of the Islamic Jurisprudent, meaning Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.12 The Netherlands is the only EU member nation that has banned both Hizbullah’s military and political wings. According to a 2004 Dutch intelligence report, “Hizbullah’s political and terrorist wings are controlled by one coordinating council.”13
Some European states have refrained from outlawing Hizbullah’s political wing, fearing reprisal by its operatives against European interests, not only in Europe but also abroad. Austrian and French officials expressed concern that Hizbullah would target European UN peacekeepers in Southern Lebanon.14 Verfassungsschutz, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, warned that Hizbullah operatives could launch reprisal attacks against German targets.15 Notably, European concerns over possible Hizbullah retribution are not shared by all Western countries. Terror analyst Benjamin Weinthal notes, “The Dutch, the Americans, and the Canadians have yet to experience violent retaliation despite blacklisting Hizbullah in its entirety.”16
The Iranian regime’s propaganda in Europe has raised concern among some European groups. According to Community Security Trust, the British security organization that monitors anti-Semitism and radical Islam, Hizbullah’s Iran-funded satellite television station, Al-Manar TV, “disseminates anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, glorification of terrorism, and incitement to violence.”17 However, Al-Manar TV, though banned by France, Spain, and Germany, still broadcasts via satellite across the European continent. In Germany, Al-Manar TV broadcasts in hotels, but not private homes, in contravention of Germany’s law banning public incitement to hatred and violence.18
Similarly, the Iranian regime-funded Press TV station, which has a London bureau, the Arabic language al-Alam satellite channel, and HispanTV, Iran’s Spanish language station, all broadcast in Western Europe. In 2016, it was reported that Spain’s far Left “anti-corruption” Podemos Party received five million Euros in laundered campaign contributions from the Iranian regime via Mahmoud Alizadeh Azimi, an Iranian HispanTV executive based in Madrid.19
Iranian Regime-Sponsored al-Quds Day
EU policy loopholes regarding Hizbullah and other Iran-funded terror proxies and terror-supporting NGOs have enabled Iran’s international al-Quds [the Muslim name for Jerusalem] Day marches to take place throughout Western Europe, particularly in Britain, Austria, France, and Germany. Al-Quds Day is an annual event that was established by the Iranian regime in 1979, the year of its Islamic revolution. Held on the last Friday of the Muslim Holiday of Ramadan, al-Quds day has served as an international platform to demonize Israel and demand its destruction.
Al-Quds Day serves as an example of the Iranian regime’s global political and ideological warfare strategy against Israel and the West.20 Demonstrations have denounced the West as “arrogant powers that will be defeated” and Israel as “a cancerous tumor that will be destroyed.”21
Since 1979, the Iranian regime has trumpeted anti-Semitic discourse globally, calling for the destruction of the “Zionist Entity” and liberation of the Middle East from all Western “colonial powers.”22
In the United Kingdom, it is legal to support Hizbullah’s “political wing.” In Germany, demonstrators have flown Hizbullah flags and displayed other pro-Hizbullah imagery during marches. The Berlin State Senate finally banned the practice in 2016.23
Iranian regime and Hizbullah-supporting protest organizers have still been granted permits and police protection for al-Quds Day protests across Europe. They frequently lease public spaces such as billboards and advertisements on public transportation to advertise marches.
In addition to demonstrating public support for Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Iran, and calling for the annihilation of Israel, Al-Quds Day parades in Europe have also employed anti-Semitic images, the burning of American, British, and Israeli flags and effigies of Israeli political leaders, and speeches that promote anti-Semitic conspiracies and Holocaust denial.24
For example, at the June 2018 al-Quds Day march in London, Nazim Ali, director of the Iran-connected Islamic Human Rights Commission, a legally-sanctioned British charity, accused “Zionists” of working with the British Conservative Party to start the 2017 Greenfell Tower fire in London, which killed 72.25
At the 2017 Berlin al-Quds Day march, protestors held Farsi signs that said “Jihad Imad,” calling for revenge against Israel for the 2008 assassination of Hizbullah arch-terrorist Imad Mughniya.26 Other posters and speakers trumpeted quotes by Ayatollah Khamenei calling for Israel’s “speedy destruction.”27
Some European legislators have confronted this radical Islamic political activity. Volker Beck, a member of the German Green Party and head of the German-Israeli parliamentary group, demanded that al-Quds Day participants such as activists from Hamas, Hizbullah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) be arrested for violating German hate speech laws and terror group affiliation.28 Other German politicians, such as Anti-Semitism Commissioner Felix Klein, have favored a ban of al-Quds Day marches in Berlin. However, Berlin Mayor Michael Müller ignored these calls and allowed the Iranian regime-sanctioned demonstrations to proceed each year. Al-Quds Day protests continued in Berlin, but without Hizbullah flags, which were banned by the municipality in 2016 after being flown for years.29
Regardless of these measures, Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, to which all regional intelligence agencies report, has estimated that some 950 Hizbullah members still operate in the Federal Republic.30
Germany’s bifurcated approach to Iran’s Hizbullah proxy continues. As of March 2018, Germany rejected a U.S. demand to designate Hizbullah’s political wing as a terrorist organization.31 Germany’s support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Iran nuclear deal and its commercial reengagement with Iran since 2015 has handcuffed Germany from taking decisive political action against Iranian proxies.
In the United Kingdom, Iranian political warfare manifests itself in support for Hizbullah activists, al-Quds Day marches, and other forms of anti-Israel propaganda. Iran’s political warfare activity inside the United Kingdom includes a London bureau for the Iranian regime-sponsored Press TV station and Iranian regime funding of UK-based registered charities and nonprofits that support Hamas and Hizbullah terror organizations and their campaigns to delegitimize and demonize Israel.32
The UK Quds Day protests include Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations such as the British Muslim Initiative, Palestinian Return Center, and Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.
The Iranian regime has similarly coordinated with some Italian nongovernmental organizations and has even penetrated into the Italian Parliament.33 Advisors to Syrian President Bashar Assad and affiliates of Hizbullah’s political wing have met with Italian officials and members of the Italian Parliament. Guglielmo Schiavone, Secretary-General of the Center for Peace in the Mediterranean, or Asadakah, an NGO financed by the Iranian embassy in Rome, has been credited with facilitating these meetings.34
Former Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata expressed concerns to the author that Hizbullah’s political wing has been mainstreamed and legitimized by Italian governments and its legislature. He noted that Italian legislators were unaware of Iran’s malign influence on the Italian Parliament in line with the legitimacy accorded to Guglielmo Schiavone and his “peaceful” nongovernmental organization.35
The European Union’s Conciliatory Policy Toward Iranian Influence
The European Union has undertaken efforts to reengage with the Iranian regime, particularly following the signing of the 2015 JCPOA deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program. The European Union was a signatory of the compromise agreement. During a June 2016 official visit to Iran, EU High Representative and European Commission Vice-President Federica Mogherini declared,
“We aim at a dialogue between the European Union and Iran that is comprehensive in scope, cooperative in the fields where we have mutual interest and our citizens have mutual interest, a dialogue that can be critical and open in the areas where we know we disagree, looking for common ground, and overall constructive in tone and in practice.”36
Reestablishing trade ties with Iran following the signing of the JCPOA has motivated EU reengagement with Iran, legitimizing the regime. In 2017, UK-Iran trade grew by 153 percent,37 France-Iran trade grew 118 percent, trade between Italy and Iran grew by 117 percent, and the European Union became Iran’s third-largest trading partner, after China and the United Arab Emirates.38 EU imports from Iran grew 83.9 percent during 2016–17 and exports grew at a rate 31.5 percent.39 Upon the 2015 signing of the deal, European Parliament President Martin Schultz announced, “After years of sanctions and tense relations, this agreement makes everyone better-off.”40
European refusal to outlaw Iran-funded NGOs and Hizbullah political activity has encouraged the Iranian regime and Hizbullah. Moreover, EU hesitations to enforce its ban on Hizbullah’s political wing have further weakened Europe in the eyes of Iran and Hizbullah leaders. This perceived weakness has left Europe more vulnerable to terror actions against European targets such as Hizbullah’s 2012 Burgas, Bulgaria bombing, carried out by a Lebanese-French terrorist.
However, there are indications that Europe may be taking a tougher stand. In June 2018, UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced that he would take “decisive action” against Hizbullah in the United Kingdom and had plans to outlaw Hizbullah entirely in Britain later in the year. His calls echo London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who called for a national Hizbullah ban in July 2017.41
The United States, France, the Netherlands, Canada, and Australia have shown that outlawing Hizbullah as one single organization without distinguishing between its military and political wings has stymied the organization’s terror financing efforts and other malign political activity.42 This has also sent an important message to the Iranian regime. Accordingly, the European Union and its member states including Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom would be advised to follow this example and outlaw Hizbullah in its entirety.
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- The author would like to thank Jamie Berk, Project Coordinator of the Program to Combat BDS and Political Warfare at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, for her assistance in researching and drafting this chapter.
- Yossef Bodansky, Target America: Terrorism in the U.S. Today, (S.P.I. Books, New York, 1993), p. 183.
- Ibid 200.
- Ronen Bergman, The Secret War with Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, (Simon and Schuster, New York, September 9, 2008), p. 191.
- Ibid 191.
- Nizar Hamzeh, “Lebanon’s Hizbullah: from Islamic Revolution to parliamentary accommodation,” Third World Quarterly, Vol 14, No 2, 1993.
- Matthew Levitt, “What Is Hezbollah Doing in Europe?,” The Atlantic, July 24, 2014.
- Jasmine Williams, Hezbollah’s Threat in Germany: an Updated Overview of its Presence and the German Response, (International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IDC Herzilya, Spring 2014.)
- Jeremy Havardi, Refuting the Anti-Israel Narrative, (MacFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson, 2016), 115.
- https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/al-quds-day-2017-anti-israel-flag-burning-chants-rallies-tehran-a7804596.html see also; https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Nearly-2000-sign-petition-to-keep-Holocaust-denier-out-of-Canada-497719
- https://antisemitism.uk/billboard-advertising-annual-pro-hizballah-al-quds-day-parade-through-london-removed-following-intervention-by-luton-borough-council/ see also; Melanie Phillips, “Hezbollah cells await Iran’s orders,” The Spectator, August 2, 2006.
- Ehud Rosen, Mapping the Organizational Sources of the Global Delegitimization Campaign against Israel in the UK, (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2010), p. 37.
- Terzi di Sant’Agata, Giulio, presentation at Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs Conference, Jerusalem, Israel, March 19, 2018.