As ever in the Middle East, it would be overly simplistic to assert that any power, including the regime in Iran, is purely on the rise or on the wane. But the radical, adventurist theocrats in Tehran have recently been feeling the proverbial heat. While allies of Iran’s especially lethal proxy, Hezbollah, gained strength at the expense of relative moderates in last week’s Lebanese election, the so-called “Party of God” remained roughly unchanged in its own share of officeholders. While Syria’s Assad regime now seems entrenched in power, its Sunni resisters scattered and ravaged, that country’s civil strife appears fated to persist indefinitely and Hezbollah’s centrality to the bloodletting has sapped the “resistance movement” of its inter-sectarian appeal. While the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers was ostensibly never popular with Iran’s powerful revolutionaries, who balk at any restriction on military endeavors and detest any accommodation with Western countries, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the compact has embarrassed the Iranian ruling class, as did Israel’s earlier disclosure of extensive intelligence proving Tehran’s nuclear duplicity.
Fear of the nuclear deal’s substantial weaknesses – and of Iranian-sponsored terrorism, weapons accumulation and mischief-making more generally – has united Israeli and key Arab leaders in remarkable, and increasingly unsubtle, ways. Meanwhile, the Iranian state’s continuing oppressiveness, corruption and failure to achieve economic growth have again spurred open domestic discontent to an extent not seen in almost a decade.
Faced with this pressure from within and without, Iranian leaders have felt compelled to project strength and extract a cost for recent setbacks. Iranian missiles and a drone from Syria were launched at Israel, prompting a furious Israeli counterattack aimed at thoroughly degrading a menacing Iranian military infrastructure being erected in Syria to mimic that which has been amassed in Lebanon. Analysts believe that Iran has also stoked and escalated support for the deliberately provoking Palestinian rioting on Gaza’s border with Israel. Although Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is Sunni, it remains estranged from the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah, and has sought to direct Gazans’ frustrations at Israel, not itself, particularly as wider Arab attention has shifted elsewhere and the Trump administration took the occasion of Israel’s 70th anniversary to relocate the United States Embassy to Jerusalem.
Undoubtedly, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah badly now want to be seen as scoring some victories, without going so far as to prompt a devastating, all-out Israeli or U.S. counteroffensive. But this dangerous “dance” remains unpredictable and of grave concern. Iran is expected by many to increase cyber-attacks, like a series of those recently aimed at Saudi Arabia, which have potential to sabotage varied forms of critical infrastructure in adversary countries. No less, terrorism abroad has long been a favored tool in Tehran, giving it the possibility of concealing its fingerprints from such violence but inflicting death and panic among targeted populations, including non-Israeli diaspora Jews. And if Iranian decision-makers, egged on by the ideologues of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, soon conclude that the benefits to Iran of the nuclear deal without U.S. inclusion are too limited – especially since European companies, prioritizing their access to American markets, want to avoid running afoul of sanctions imposed on Iran by Washington – Tehran could again make a mad dash for nuclear weaponry, prompting acute alarm and counter-measures across the region.
Finally, although Hezbollah knows that any massive attack, of which it is now capable, against Israelis would result in a fiery response from Israel unlikely to please the people of Lebanon, Hezbollah remains answerable chiefly to its patrons in Iran and is also desperate to reclaim Arab “legitimacy” as the leading non-state threat to Israel. Accordingly, especially if direct Israeli-Iranian skirmishing (with little precedent) continues in Syria, the potential for Hezbollah to be activated against Israel – and thus for outright war – is real. Add acute tension between the U.S. and Iran, and red-hot recrimination (over rivalry in Syria, Qatar, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere) between Gulf Arabs and Iran, and the possibility exists for regional conflict unlike that experienced in the past.
To make matters worse, those jihadist groups more focused on destroying Israel than on containing Iran will want to force Sunni leaders away from a tacit alliance with Jerusalem by stage-managing a propaganda spectacle whose primary victims are ultimately Palestinian.
In this – and, most recklessly, in turning a blind eye to the looming danger posed by a foremost terrorist army, Hezbollah, just subjected to intensified U.S. sanctions – the United Nations and other willfully oblivious members of the global community can sadly be expected to play right along.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
A few weeks ago, several media outlets in Argentina reported about a recent meeting between an Argentine journalist and a man named “Ibrahim Yassin” in Israel.
Yassin is well-known in Israel, but almost nobody knew about him in Argentina. Originally a Shiite Muslim from Lebanon, this man told the Argentine reporter the amazing story of how he became an Israeli citizen and an Orthodox Jew, changing his name to Abraham Sinai.
The story of his transformation began during the civil war in Lebanon, in the 1970s and 80s, when he witnessed the atrocities committed by the Syrian army and also by Hezbollah combatants. When the Israeli army entered Lebanon, Yassin was able to confirm that they operated under a different set of values, especially when an Israeli army patrol, putting his own life at risk, rescued Yassin's pregnant wife and arranged for her to be taken to Haifa, where she was able to give birth safely. According to Yassin, she would have died if left in Lebanon.
Yassin’s closeness to the Israelis generated the suspicion of members of Hezbollah, who kidnapped and tortured him for months. According to Yasmin, a man named Imad Mughniyeh, tired of not getting the information he was expecting to get from him, burned Yassin’s 8-month old son alive in front of his eyes.
After a while, and convinced that Yassin was innocent, they decided to release him. According to reports, it was then that Yassin decided to infiltrate Hezbollah and spy for Israel. He did so for 10 years, and the valuable information he provided to the Israelis saved the lives of many Israeli soldiers.
In 1997, when the Israelis felt that Yassin was in serious danger, they took him and his family to Israel, where they have lived since then.
Yassin’s story is relevant in Argentina, not only because it is not very common to find stories in the local media where the Israeli army is portrayed in a positive way, but also — and most importantly — because of the connection between Yassin’s testimony and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires.
According to Yassin, Mughniyeh, the same man who tortured him and murdered his son, was the person that ordered the AMIA attack, as Hezbollah’s global operations chief. Yassin in fact states that he was there when the attack was ordered.
Even though this is probably not news for many Israelis, in Argentina his testimony is very important. In fact, Alberto Nisman (the federal prosecutor that conducted the AMIA case investigation for over ten years before being murdered in 2015) had accused Mughniyeh of being one of the masterminds of the bombing, and had even secured an Interpol red alert against him.
Mughniyeh, who is widely believed to have also participated in the planning of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and a number of other terrorist attacks around the world, died in a car blast in Syria in 2008, so he will never be interrogated for his crimes. But Yassin’s testimony should serve as both a vindication of Nisman’s courageous work and a reminder of the dangers of Iran’s global terror activities.
Adriana Camisar is an attorney by training who holds a graduate degree in international law and diplomacy from The Fletcher School (Tufts University). She has been B'nai B'rith International Assistant Director for Latin American Affairs since late 2008, and Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs since 2013, when she relocated to Argentina, her native country. Prior to joining B'nai B'rith International, she worked as a research assistant to visiting Professor Luis Moreno Ocampo (former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court), at Harvard University; interned at the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs; worked at a children's rights organization in San Diego, CA; and worked briefly as a research assistant to the Secretary for Legal Affairs at the Organization of American States (OAS). To view some of her additional content, click here.
Facing economic collapse and a great shortage in public support, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has chosen as his vice president one of Venezuela's most controversial and feared politicians, government critics say—Tareck El Aissami.
El Aissami has climbed from student leader in rural Venezuela to the country's number two in power in just over a decade.
El Aissami, 42 years old, is one of a number of Venezuelans under investigation by U.S. authorities for alleged participation in drug trafficking and money laundering. He played a key role in helping Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist group, gain ground in Latin America. A young star in the so called socialist party, El Aissami is viewed by both supporters and critics as extremely dangerous, far from any political ethics and skills.
Maduro, whom former President Hugo Chavez chose as his own successor, has been under pressure to step aside because of the country's potential default, widespread social unrest and a demanding opposition. He has so far avoided—through his control of the so called legal system—the opposition's attempt to hold a referendum on his removal before his term ends in about two years. Many analysts say if things continue to decline, the main risk to him is from within the military.
El Aissami's selection addresses Maduro’s concerns. Those seeking to oust Maduro probably will be more careful facing El Aissami and might hesitate to pursue their efforts. And the new vice president is a strong man with tight control over internal security forces and little loyalty to the military. He would be less tempted to take part in a military-led coup than to resist it.
In the weeks since El Aissaimi became vice president, Maduro has granted him wide-reaching decree powers and helped him to lead a newly formed “commando unit” against alleged coups and officials suspected of treason. The “Unity” has already arrested “opposition” members without hesitation or embarrassment.
El Aissami first met Chavez when he was a student. According to three witnesses, El Aissami openly celebrated the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States, and has served as one of Chavez's closest allies ever since. In his last post as governor of Aragua, he regularly denounced government opponents as traitors. A court in Aragua annulled the recall referendum there, charging the opposition with collecting fraudulent signatures.
El Aissami has publicly denied any alleged drug ties, saying they are little more than media lies, but traces of all sort of media investigations end in his family circle and his people in Aragua.
El Aissami won a seat in congress as a representative of Merida in 2005. Chavez named the young congressman as vice minister and later minister of interior. Much of what El Aissami tried as interior minister was resisted by the military. In 2012, El Aissami won the governorship of Aragua and the opposition has since labeled El Aissami "the narco (nark) of Aragua,” alleging that he has used his vast political network to help turn the country into an international hub for drugs and Middle Eastern extremists.
Since at least 2011, Homeland Security Investigations and the Drug Enforcement Administration have been investigating El Aissami for money laundering to the Middle East, specifically Lebanon.
In this context, CNN has made this week the following announcement:
“Passports In The Shadows,” a two-part joint investigation by CNN and CNN en Espanol airing on February 6 and February 8 within AC360°(8-9pm ET, CNN), uncovers an alleged sale of passports and visas from the Venezuelan embassy in Iraq, as well as how U.S. officials have known about other passport irregularities in Venezuela for more than a decade. The yearlong investigation showcases an account by a whistleblower, the former legal adviser to the Venezuelan embassy in Baghdad, who provided CNN with comprehensive reports of the alleged activity inside the embassy and the government officials’ dismissal of the allegations.CNN tracks down the former general in charge of the country’s immigration office, now living in Miami under political asylum, who details the corruption he says he witnessed for years, including the issuing of fraudulent passports. CNN and CNN en Espanol conducted interviews in the U.S., Venezuela, Spain and the UK over the past year. Additionally, CNN has obtained a confidential intelligence report from Latin American countries that links the new vice president of Venezuela, Tareck El Aissami, to the issuance of passports to individuals from the Middle East as well as people linked to the terrorist group Hezbollah.
Countries and governments all over the world know what has been going on in Venezuela for the last ten years, and the absolute lack of any freedom in the last five years. Everybody knows the violation of human rights, the absolute absence of judiciary, political prisoners under inhuman conditions and the total disrespect for the law.
Why the silence then? Why isn’t there a vote in the Organization of American States (OAS) or any of the U.N. agencies to try to change the situation? The OAS secretary-general speaks out, but is never endorsed, why?
There are no positive answers to these questions. As there are no answers, Tareck Al Aissami can rule “de facto” as it happens today, and Iran and Hezbollah can celebrate.
Across Latin America, Iran presents itself as a very normal country wanting to deliver its culture and share it with ordinary people.
Mosques and cultural centers want to show Iran´s point: “We are peaceful and we want to spread peace all over the world.”
Iran wants to distract from its nuclear race and the terrorist attacks in Argentina in 1992 and 1994.
Venezuela opened its doors to Iran 10 years ago and Iran took advantage of it, directly or through Hezbollah in South and Central America. But, Iran envisioned that allies like Venezuela or Bolivia may not endure forever as authoritarian regimes, so it has also advanced its agenda with mosques and missionaries.
Tehran’s use of clerics as unofficial agents of the Iranian revolution started in the 1980s and Latin America was not forgotten in this field. The first cleric to reach Latin America was Mohsen Rabbani, who, in 1983, went to Argentina to lead the Al-Tawhid mosque and serve as a halal meat inspector in Buenos Aires. Both tasks appeared innocent, but Rabbani was deeply involved in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and injured over 300.
In 1984, Sheikh Taleb Hussein al-Khazraji made his way to Brazil. Both Rabbani and Khazraji were cited by the Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman (found dead in his apartment a year and a half ago, two days before he was expected to present criminal charges against the former Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner) in his 2013 report on Iran’s Latin American networks.
According to Nisman, “Interpol [Brasilia] informed that Khazraji was an employee of the Iranian government and ... was engaged in recruiting highly politicized believers to get them close to Teheran.”
Though Rabbani left Latin America due to the accusation of his involvement in the AMIA bombing, he continues to run his recruitment program from Iran’s center of religious learning in Qom.
Khazraji remains in the Shia community of São Paulo, Brazil, where he pursues his “clerical tasks.”
According to a very serious investigation of Emanuele Ottolenghi, an expert in Islamic penetration in Latin America, “another cleric reportedly linked to Hezbollah is Sheikh Ghassan Youssef Abdallah. Abdallah is active in Chile, in Brazil (frequently visiting the tri-border area), and in Paraguay (where he once ran the Iranian mosque in Ciudad Del Este).”
Ottolenghi explains: “They are not alone. Alongside dozens of Iranian and Lebanese Shia clerics, there is also a new generation of locally born clerics who have joined their ranks. Converts are routinely sent to Qom, all expenses paid, to attend Iranian seminaries specially tailored to Spanish and Portuguese speakers, before they return home to act as Iran’s unofficial emissaries in their countries of birth.”
During his term, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the region numerous times, attempting to influence the region, including: Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Brazil, Nicaragua. Iranian influence and Hezbollah activities use religious envoys to deliver messages of hate toward the Jewish people and Israel.
In June 2014, the Imam Ali mosque in Curitiba hosted a well-attended memorial service for a young Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria in March 2014. His Brazilian uncle, wearing a Hezbollah scarf, led the memorial, and praised his nephew as a martyr.
Latin American governments should recognize the threat posed by a foreign power spreading hatred to local populations.
The bombings in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, the freedom of Hezbollah members to traffic drugs in Venezuela and Central America, the anti-Semitic hatred in social media; the murder of a Jewish businessman this year in Uruguay, stabbed by a converted Islamist who said “he had received a call from Allah to kill a Jew,” are enough examples of hate crime, terrorism and hate speech.
And hate crimes and hate speech are a threat for all countries and their populations. If governments and civil society recognize that everybody is under threat, more tragedies could be avoided.
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