CATF Reports Mar. 10, 2016, 11:20am


There is some truth to the words of Hassan Firouzabadi, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, who last Sunday dismissed the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a “hasty and ill-advised” move in line with the U.S. and Israel’s interests in the Middle East. Hezbollah’s terrorist designation, mostly maneuvered by the GCC’s most influential member, Saudi Arabia, represents the latest development in a larger trend of exploitation of international sanctions as a political tool to advance the proponent’s strategic goals. Saudi Arabia is leading a battle for regional dominance that has the Sunni-dominated Gulf countries dueling against the major Shia powers in the Middle East and its allies - Iran, Iran-backed Hezbollah, and Russia.

GCC countries first imposed sanctions on Hezbollah in 2013, when the organization went to war in Syria alongside Bashar al-Assad. On March 2, 2016 the GCC head Abdullatif al-Zayani announced the designation of Lebanon-based Hezbollah and its affiliates as a terrorist entity for its “hostile acts” in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq that included smuggling, inciting violence, and recruitment of terrorists, and represented a serious threat to “Arab national security.” Yesterday, the GCC information ministers added that they will take legal action against Hezbollah-affiliated TV channels.

The New York Times reporter Anne Barnard aptly remarked that Hezbollah has become Lebanon’s “most powerful political, social and armed political organization”. By fighting in Syria alongside Russian and Iranian forces against several Saudi-backed rebel groups – a fight that cost Hezbollah more than 1,000 fighters – the group gained formidable tactical experience and an impressive upgrade in its weapons capabilities. Yet the national security concern seems marginal when compared to the geopolitical calculus behind the Saudi-maneuvered move, the implications of which have yet to be assessed.

Gulf expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, David A. Weinberg, emphasized that, so far, Saudi Arabia has designated only Hezbollah-affiliated individuals and the movement’s Saudi branch. The GCC terrorist designation of the Lebanese core came after Saudi Arabia showed signs of a shift in its foreign policy strategy towards Iran. On February 19, Saudi Arabia announced that it was suspending $4 billion worth of military aid and security services to Lebanon in response to their lack of condemnation of the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. After years of trying to lessen tensions with Iran over the Lebanese border by “vying behind the scenes to counter Iran and Iran-backed Hezbollah”, these efforts were shelved in favor of a more confrontational approach that intends to weaken support for Hezbollah in Lebanon which subsequently impacts Iran. Saudi Arabia’s move, which exploits international law mechanisms in order to make a case against Iran, is now institutionalized through international sanctions, and has brought together the GCC countries against a common enemy.  

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, condemned Saudi Arabia’s recent initiatives for allegedly pushing Lebanon into a “new phase of political conflict.” In fact, Hezbollah forces are far more autonomous and powerful than the Lebanese military, and the Saudi tactic is deemed by many to be unrealistic in its expectation that it will prompt Beirut’s condemnation of both Hezbollah and its state-sponsor Iran. Certainly the highly problematic political and financial implications of Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut billions in aid to Lebanon are not strictly limited to Lebanon. The U.S. criticized the Saudi move, which directly affects U.S. commercial interests in the region. On Tuesday, the Obama administration pressured Saudi Arabia to avoid new measures to further economically punish Lebanon. As a result of Saudi Arabia’s funding cut, the U.S. lost about $1 billion in military contracts that Lebanon was expected to use to purchase U.S. weapons for its army.

Reflecting on the broader spectrum of consequences of the GCC decision in relation to an empowered Hezbollah, Foreign Policy columnist Nour Samaha observed that Lebanon’s current situation does not seem to pose an immediate risk to Israel. Both Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria and the political climate in the country – which does not appear to be as conducive to war as it was in 2006 – support this conclusion. However, although in part unavoidable, the systematic exploitation of international sanctions to pursue a political agenda should be restrained. Ultimately, a bold move with dubious impact in the Saudi-Iranian proxy war is not worth the risk of weakening one of the most effective tools currently available to the international community and to national law enforcement authorities in fighting terrorist finance.

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