The European Commission - the European Union’s powerful executive body, responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding E.U. treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the E.U. - is being confirmed this week by the European Parliament. Earlier in July, former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was appointed commission president. Over the summer, she assembled a team of 27 commissioners nominated by the E.U.’s member states to be put forward to Parliament for approval. The U.K., currently in the midst of Brexit, has opted not to nominate a commissioner.
The team is gender-balanced, has an average age of 55.9 years and is mostly derived from Europe’s three largest political families (conservatives, social democrats and classical liberals). However, the proposed commissioners are not without controversy: At least four candidates are facing corruption allegations, and two of them, the Hungarian and the Romanian candidates, have already been rejected by committee in the initial rounds of hearings.
With eye-catching figures, murmurs and rumors in every corner, the question to keep in mind is, what does this mean for the issues important to us?
In short, three takeaways stand out. Two are good news, while one is not:
But before jumping to the implications of the new makeup of the commission, let’s open a bracket and look at the inventory the outgoing commission leaves for the new team.
The E.U.’s feeble, reluctant and occasionally one-sided involvement in the Middle East Peace Process was an object of criticism in the last mandate. Outgoing High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini has been herself a strong supporter of the Iran Deal, has withstood calls to add Hezbollah in its entirety to the list of terrorist organizations and has, consequently, often been deemed by Jerusalem as anti-Israel.
Beyond E.U.-Israel relations, though, much work has been done on combating anti-Semitism at the domestic level. While one could justifiably argue that it’s hard to speak of one thing without the other, the outgoing commission does deserve props on this front. Under the auspices of its first vice president, Frans Timmermans, and overseen by Jourova, Coordinator for Combating Antisemitism Katharina von Schnurbein, was appointed in late 2015 and since then has moved from success to success. Among other things, she pushed for the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti--Semitism, brought about the second and largest-ever survey of perceptions and experiences of anti--Semitism among European Jews and the first-ever report of perceptions of anti-Semitism among young Jews and put in place a Commission Working Group on Anti-Semitism. The working group was mandated by a declaration forwarded unanimously by the 28 E.U. member states in December 2018.
Beyond these necessary and important structural advancements, which signaled a significant change of pace in relation to past efforts, a strong narrative about Europe’s Jewish heritage and the place of the Jewish community in Europe today anchored the work on anti-Semitism.
What to expect next?
As Jourova assumes her role as commission vice president for values and transparency, she will be in charge of dialogue with religious organizations and communities, among her other duties, and thus is likely to continue her work on Jewish issues. She will oversee the Commissioner-designate for justice, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, a friend of the Belgian Jewish community who, by the way, on the day of his nomination attended a B’nai B’rith Rescuers Citation event. If the previous commission is any indication, the topic of antisemitism and the protection of Jewish life in Europe will fall under their purview.
Also of interest: Vice President-designate from Greece Margaritis Schinas, a former commission spokesman, was caught in a storm of criticism about the title of his portfolio, “Our European Way of Life”. While some appreciated the not-so-veiled concerns over migration, others - myself included - were left wondering what this even means, and whether this title included the Jewish way of life and that of all other minorities, or was just meant as reassurance for the right--wing Christian conservatives that form the political home of the new commission president. Vice President Schinas will oversee Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli, who is known in Malta for pushing through marriage equality in one of Europe’s most conservative countries. She will lead the fight against discrimination and thus may also be dealing with issues of antisemitism, although it remains unclear how responsibilities will be split between the equality and justice portfolios. Without much background of work either with the Jewish community or on matters relating to Israel, it seems a clean slate awaits us for both.
On foreign policy, those hoping they could finally sigh in relief over Mogherini’s concluded term ought to think again. Borrell, a former President of the European Parliament, comes in as high representative-designate with decades of experience as an outspoken and often polemic politician, with some troubling baggage regarding Israel and the region.
Although Borrell lived in Kibbutz Gal On shortly after graduating, where he met his first wife, he seemingly holds on to no positive feelings about Israel - at least as far as his foreign policy positions go.
He has spoken with some praise of the progress made by Iran since the Islamic revolution and Iran’s own state propaganda has described him as tough on Israel and fond of Iran, adding that “the Zionist entity is “wary” of the incoming E.U. foreign policy chief.” A keen supporter of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), he warmly welcomed Mahmoud Abbas to Strasbourg in 2006. We can only hope he will continue to hold the flimsy E.U. line on the conflict. It is worth noting that Borrell has met with B’nai B’rith leadership on the side of the U.N. General Assembly, which is hopefully indicative of his future receptiveness to our concerns.
So as the pieces of the puzzle start coming together and final confirmations of portfolios are announced, it’s sure that we’re entering a new chapter of Jewish and Israel advocacy here in Brussels. As the new B’nai B’rith Director of E.U. Affairs, I’m excited to tackle it all head-on.
Alina Bricman is the Director of E.U. Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
Nearly four years ago, at around the time that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or as it more commonly known, “the Iran deal”) was reached, I wrote a post for this blog on the “snapback sanctions” part of the deal. The biting U.N. Security Council sanctions—which had brought Iran to the table in the first place—were supposed to be snapped back into place if Iran was not living up to the deal. The snapback sanctions were meant to mollify critics and skeptics who questioned the wisdom of so quickly reversing sanctions on a country that had been found to be cheating on numerous commitments.
My original post went into the cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles that would be necessary before the sanctions could be reinstated. This is the key paragraph:
“Aside from unnecessary bureaucracy, the more serious problem is that the language in the nuclear deal and in the subsequent U.N. Security Council resolution state that it must be a ‘significant’ compliance issue. This is vague—what exactly constitutes ‘significant non-compliance?’ The fear is that the tendency of the world powers will be to minimize or ignore non-compliance issues as not ‘significant’ enough to rise to the level that would require ‘snapback’ sanctions. Why? Because once the U.N. sanctions are re-introduced, the U.N. Security Council resolution ‘noted’ Iran’s stated position that Iran would stop living up to its commitments in the nuclear deal in full. Essentially, the Security Council resolution allowed the ‘snapback’ sanctions to be held hostage by the deal. “
Much has happened in the meantime. The U.S., led by a new administration, pulled out of the JCPOA and re-imposed U.S. sanctions (which are extremely tough, but not as far-reaching as Security Council sanctions could be) and added new sanctions as well. The Europeans have been trying to get around the U.S. sanctions by creating a loophole for companies to do business with Iran. Iran, feeling the bite of the U.S. sanctions on its weak economy, has been trying to extort the Europeans—who are desperate to save the JCPOA—into giving it more money through nuclear blackmail. Iran has already exceeded the limit of enriched uranium allowed under the deal and is increasing the percentage of enrichment on its stockpile of uranium, two steps on the road towards building nuclear weapons. Iran has also been trying to wreak havoc in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, threatening the oil supply from some of the world’s most productive oil fields.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bombshell news conference displaying evidence seized by the Mossad in a daring raid on the Iranian regime’s clandestine atomic archive in Tehran, which showed that Iran had deceived the international community by not declaring the true extent of their advanced nuclear weapons program, was greeted with a shrug by the international community. We were told that everyone knew that Iran had a nuclear program, that this was the point of the JCPOA—to stop it. But Iran’s declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were to be the baseline of the deal. If the international community is so willing to accept a lie as the baseline to the deal, what else will Iran be allowed to get away with?
Following the press conference, Netanyahu presented at the U.N. General Assembly evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear warehouse in Tehran. As this, too, was undeclared to the IAEA, it would also be a breach of the deal, and a grave one at that. The international community initially shrugged this off as well. However, months later, the IAEA inspected the warehouse and reportedly found radioactive traces. If the reports are true, this is yet another undeclared violation, to go along with the declared violations that Iran has now begun to openly tout.
In the face of Iran’s breaches of the JCPOA, the countries party to the deal (minus the U.S., of course) met to discuss the violations. The verdict? Iranian non-compliance was not “significant” enough to warrant even starting the bureaucratic complaint process.
The fears that many Iran deal skeptics had regarding the JCPOA—that the deal itself would end up becoming more precious than the goal of a de-nuclearized Iran—are sadly being borne out by the behavior of the countries party to the deal. What does Iran have to do before the international community will decide that a “significant” breach of its nuclear commitments has been made?
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. Click here to view more of his additional content.
This week, United States sanctions that were lifted after the signing of the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program began to be reimposed following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal, whose other signatories were Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union. With saber-rattling renewed between Tehran and Washington — but economic stress in Iran prompting some Iranians, if not yet their leadership, to consider President Trump’s offer to negotiate with “no preconditions” — a review of the original deal’s terms and pitfalls is in order.
The 2015 agreement required Iran to give up and limit or suspend a substantial part of its nuclear material and activity: Iran was obligated to eliminate roughly 97 percent of its uranium stockpile, dismantle and put under seal two-thirds of its centrifuges, cap uranium enrichment at levels considerably below weapons grade and remove the core of its plutonium reactor. The deal also required Iran to accept extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and it required Iran to pledge never to obtain a nuclear weapon.
But, of course, the deal was very far from air-tight:
While the IAEA has reported finding no evidence of major Iranian noncompliance with the deal thus far, Tehran has a long record of able deception and of violating commitments — as reconfirmed in the extensive intelligence material recently made public by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, refuting Iran’s claim that its supreme leader forbade outright any pursuit of nuclear weaponry.
One significant and underreported reality about the U.S. pullout from the deal is that it reflected, and solidified, growing Arab-Israeli alignment focused on containing the Iranian threat. This, if nothing else, is a silver lining to the Iranian problem, and the U.S. is a critical partner in encouraging Arab-Israeli reconciliation and cooperation.
At the same time, does the potential unraveling of the nuclear deal help or hurt the most extreme elements in Iran? It isn’t easy to say. The hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which maintains significant power in Iran’s economy, finds ways to benefit from especially difficult times, and the nuclear deal was associated with the relative “moderates” in Iran. At the same time, economic strain in Iran builds pressure against the regime — as seen in the most recent popular protests calling for an end to corruption and an end to the foreign adventurism that has made Iran the world’s leading state-sponsor of terror.
Global observers continue to assess the initial U.S. nuclear talks this year with North Korea. How are those negotiations influencing, and also being influenced by, the Iran experience? Iran has told North Korea that it can’t trust the U.S. to stay in a deal — though American firmness on Iran had at least set a high bar for the North Korean process. On the other hand, North Korea, unlike Iran, is already known to have nuclear weaponry. Will Iran be tempted to follow Pyongyang’s lead in engaging in new talks, or, prioritizing its saving of face, will it refuse to renegotiate the deal of 2015?
In the meantime, primary focus has been on the response by European allies to the U.S. withdrawal. While the Europeans became politically and economically wedded to the deal — and have already now been reeling over separate disagreements with the U.S. over the Paris climate accord, free trade agreements, tariffs, and NATO and other coalitions — European government officials have started acknowledging that it will be difficult to maintain the deal without American participation, since European companies will not want to lose access to the U.S. market by violating Washington’s reimposed sanctions on Iran.
If, in fact, Europe is unable to preserve the economic incentives needed to keep the Iranians themselves in the nuclear agreement, and it collapses, the question is: what happens next? Russia and China would likely veto attempts to reinstate U.N. sanctions. Iran, perhaps just short of provoking outright war, will almost surely make a point of ramping up nuclear activity. Iran will also continue to want to extract a price from Israel for the U.S. pullout —just as it and its proxies such as Hezbollah are already keen to undermine Arab-Israeli partnership and to recoup popular credibility among Arabs, lost in the bloody sectarian war in Syria, by again attacking Israel. And Israel, for its part, has made clear that it will act against the build-up of Iranian military positions in Syria to match those it established in Lebanon along the border with Israel. Russia has reportedly signaled that it will help maintain distance between the Iranians and Israel’s boundaries, although both Russia and Iran have served as critical allies preserving the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Only time will tell whether a more dependable, comprehensive and lasting resolution of Iranian nuclear and other destabilizing activities will be achieved. However, to achieve it, common purpose will be needed. If such commonality can be reached by many Arabs and Israelis, it should be between the U.S. and Europe, as well as India, Japan and others who are being pressed to wean themselves off of Iranian oil. No less, commonality can and must be reached between Republicans and Democrats, who long shared a bipartisan recognition that the Iranian threat is an existential one for indispensable allies of the United States.
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.
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.
By Adriana Camisar
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Argentina yesterday after a very successful visit.
The visit was historical because it was the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister visited the country. The trip also showed the great shift of Argentina’s foreign policy since President Mauricio Macri’s inauguration.
During the previous government, the bilateral relationship with the State of Israel had deteriorated considerably, given the close relationship between the government of former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the Iranian regime. Indeed, the Argentine government and Iran signed the shameful Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which sought to withdraw the investigation of the 1994 Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building bombing from Argentina's jurisdiction, and to grant "investigative" powers to the Iranians.
In fact, Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor who had conducted the AMIA investigation for 10 years, was found dead, under very suspicious circumstances, after denouncing that the president and her officials had negotiated the agreement with Iran in order to get impunity for the accused Iranians. Today, Kirchner is being tried for treason by virtue of Nisman’s complaint.
The rapprochement with Israel is the clearest evidence of the desire of the current Argentine government to distance itself from dictatorial regimes like Iran, Syria and Venezuela and to get closer to Western democracies and the free world.
The Jewish community in Argentina is the largest in South America and the 6th largest in the world, and, undoubtedly, for the majority of Argentine Jews it is a source of great joy to witness the warm reception that Netanyahu received in the country and to see the flags of the two nations displayed together, after so long.
The opportunities for cooperation between the two countries are enormous in the areas of innovation and technology, cybersecurity, counter-terrorism, health and education. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a very fruitful relationship.
In addition to Argentina, Netanyahu is also visiting Mexico and Colombia, before heading to New York to attend the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.
In addition to strengthening ties with these Latin American countries, Israel is certainly seeking to confront Iran’s infiltration in the region, which took place in the last few years, particularly with the help of Venezuela, and to gain greater support from Latin American countries at the United Nations, where Israel has historically been unfairly treated. Hopefully, this renewed friendship with the nations of the region will indeed be reflected at the U.N. and other multilateral forums.
Bolivia, the closest ally of the Venezuelan government in Latin America; Bolivia is also close with Iran; Bolivia has be named the chair of the United Nations Security Council in June.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, who decided to break relations with Israel in 2014 by saying the Israel is a “terrorist State,” announced the two main goals of his government in the next 30 days: Bolivia will be the President of the Security Council.
"Our priorities, conflict in the Middle East of 50 years of the occupation of Palestine, and non-proliferation of chemical and nuclear weapons,” Morales said.
Morales also said that his country “assumes with great responsibility the presidency of the U.N. Security Council and we will work for the resolution of international conflicts."
It is hard to believe that the debates promoted by Bolivia may end in positive results for any conflict.
During the U.N. General Assembly last September, Morales made it very clear what the meaning of peace and equity is for his government. Let´s review some of his thoughts, taken from his speech.
On the building of a wall: “The capitalist countries have built borders and walls everywhere—on water, on land and in the air. One out of every 100 people in the world is either a refugee or someone displaced by global warming, wars or imperialist invasions, as occurred in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other countries.”
Morales thinks that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a victim.
On Israel hatred: “The expansionist and warmongering policies of the State of Israel and its allies are major expressions of barbarism in the modern world. We strongly condemn Israel’s attacks on the civilian population of Palestine and demand that Israel cease hostilities immediately. We urge the United Nations to fully and immediately recognize the State of Palestine and take tangible action to stop the brutal genocide of the Palestinian people.”
Morales uses Iranian anti-Israeli language to attack the Jewish state and has never recognized the terror committed by Hezbollah and Hamas. All the same: Hamas is a great friend to Bolivia.
On justifying why there is terrorism: “It must be said that as long as wealth remains in the hands of a few, as long as poverty and exclusion exist, as long as racism and discrimination persist, as long as the identity and the sovereignty of peoples are not respected and their natural resources are pillaged for imperialist purposes, there will be grounds for violence and terrorism.”
Morales believes that “imperialism” is the root of terrorism. This is the way Iran and its proxies speak up, and Bolivia endorses, not only the language, but its votes in U.N. agencies.
Bolivia and Morales can´t accept that Venezuela is a dictatorship and is undergoing a humanitarian crisis with lack of medicines and food. Bolivia endorsed former Bolivian President Hugo Chavez and now Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, regardless of the massive protests in the streets of Venezuela, the tens of civilians killed and put in jail. Morales´ words are clear and rather unsustainable:
“Imperialist interests are creating a process of political destabilization in our region. We condemn foreign political intervention in our brother country of Venezuela. We salute the revolutionary fight of the people, undertaken with their leader, Commander Maduro. The new imperial conspiracy in the twenty-first century is no longer through coups d’état but rather through parliamentary or judicial takeovers. They may be legal and constitutional, but they are not legitimate, nor do they respect the decisions of the people. We do not need an imperial leader to control our people.”
The chairmanship of Bolivia in the Security Council will serve no purpose. A government supporting al-Assad and its brutal crimes in Syria; accusing Israel of genocide; backing the brutality against civilians in Venezuela should not be given the opportunity to spread such hatred. On the contrary, it should be exposed for defending all principles and regimes opposed to democracy and peace.
But this is the way it works in U.N. agencies. And so, rhetoric moves forward each day more and more, helping countries to fight hunger and terrorism is each day further and further.
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.
Jan. 18 will mark the second anniversary of the “mysterious” death of Argentine Federal Prosecutor Alberto Nisman. For more than ten years, Nisman had been in charge of the investigation of the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires.
He was found dead in his apartment four days after making extremely serious allegations against then President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, her Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman and other people close to the government. Nisman stated he had extensive evidence that the government had secretly negotiated a pact with Iran in order to get impunity for the Iranians accused of plotting and executing the AMIA attack.
The pact the prosecutor was referring to—known as the Memorandum of Understanding—was signed in January 2013. Through this agreement, both governments pledged to create a "truth commission" to jointly investigate the AMIA bombing, something as absurd as creating a Nazi commission to investigate the Holocaust. At the time, the government justified the signing of this pact on the need to discover the truth. However, it seemed clear to most people who knew the case, that the signing of this pact represented a major shift in Argentina’s foreign policy, as it attempted to improve relations with Teheran at the expense of the bombing’s many victims.
The pact never came into force because the Iranian Parliament did not ratify it, and also because it was ultimately declared unconstitutional by an Argentine Federal Court. But it would have given the Iranians access to all the documentation of the case, and made it easier for them to get rid of the Interpol red alerts that Nisman had secured against the accused.
Nisman’s death left the country in shock and there are still no clear answers as to what exactly happened to him. However, there is now some hope that his complaint will finally be investigated.
However, several things changed since then. On Dec. 10, 2016, Mauricio Macri took office as the new president of Argentina, and one of the first things he did was to let the pact with Iran die. He did this by not appealing the ruling that had declared it unconstitutional. Macri also said that he expected the judiciary to act with independence and to get to the truth.
Several months ago, the Delegation of Argentine Israelite Associations (DAIA), which is the Jewish umbrella organization in Argentina, made a new presentation alleging that the case should be re-opened because of “newly found evidence,” and requested to be admitted as a plaintiff. The new pieces of evidence submitted were a recording that was found in which Timerman—in a conversation with the former head of the AMIA—conceded that he was negotiating with the ones that “placed the bomb,” and the ruling that declared that the pact with Iran was unconstitutional.
Rafecas, the original judge of the case dismissed the request and so did the Federal Court, but when the issue got to the Court of Cassation once again, they finally decided to re-open the investigation. The Court of Cassation accepted the DAIA as a plaintiff and ordered Rafecas and the other judges that had intervened to withdraw from the case.
For the first time in two years the possibility to get to the truth seems real. And, of course, this case could shed light on what really happened to Nisman, as his death is undoubtedly linked to his complaint.
It is still too early to know if the investigation will go as far as it needs to go, but the re-opening of the case is certainly a promising sign.
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.
Still Waiting for Justice: 22 Years After the AMIA Bombing Rocked Buenos Aires (English and Español)
This piece was also run on The Times of Israel. You can click below to read it there.
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