The European Union is confused when it comes to providing a clear justification for its steps to designate the military wing of Hezbollah as a terror group. At times, officials talk about the judicial reason for the move, connected to the accusation that this wing carried out the Burgas bombing in Bulgaria, and a separate bombing attempt in Cyprus. At other times, however, “high-placed” EU sources leak information that the reason for the decision is Hezbollah’s heavy military involvement in the war in Syria. This latter is a political reason, because the EU decision represents a political message to the party.
One will likely get lost in a search for the real reason behind the decision – and there are those who say that it is neither of the reasons above. Instead, the motive for the move is related either to Israeli insistence that the step be taken against the party, or a European message to Iran, via Hezbollah. However, both of these interpretations might be relevant for the move by the EU, which has sparked plenty of fears and warnings in Lebanon about the domestic repercussions of the move on the country, which is already in crisis. It will increase the level of crisis, which was proven in the comments by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, on Wednesday. He told his rivals inside and outside the country: “You will not be able to exploit this decision in Lebanon; there will be no (new) government without Hezbollah and its ministers will be from the party’s military wing.” The comments reflected how a spirit of challenge, rather than fear, prevailed in this response.
This reaction by Nasrallah contained nothing new. Before the EU decision, it was clear that there was going to be no new government in Lebanon, after the party’s rivals decided to stick to their stance that no party members be included in the new Cabinet, and that all parties would be represented by “friends,” to keep the executive branch neutral vis-à-vis the open-ended struggle over the prolonged crisis in Syria. This was amid contradictory wagers by each party; Hezbollah believed that developments were moving favorably for the regime, while the party’s rivals hoped that the balance of power on the ground was moving favorably for the opposition, although they had no evidence that would allow them to make a wager such as this, with the regime holding out thanks to support from the outside, including Hezbollah itself.
Even though Hezbollah is trying to hide the tension caused by the EU decision for its leaders, it retained its stance of being indifferent. Two months ago, amid the news that the Gulf Cooperation Council was headed toward classifying Hezbollah as a terrorist group, Nasrallah commented by saying that this threat meant nothing to him.
The source of the EU's confusion was an attempt to reduce the impact of the decision, by saying that it would be reviewed every six months, or that visa bans and asset freezes would be applied to specific individuals suspected of taking part in terror acts in Europe. If this is indeed the case, then these comments are an attempt to limit any response by Hezbollah, so that there are no hostile acts against UNIFIL peacekeeping forces in south Lebanon; to the same degree, they also leave open the possibility of expanding the sanctions against those who are believed to belong to Hezbollah’s military wing. If these sanctions are expanded, then the political aspect of the decision will enjoy priority. By keeping the judicial measures vague, the Europeans will retain some ability to restrict them, so that they are applied to a few people, or broaden them, to apply to bigger groups, party leaders, or donors to the party, etc. This will hurt the Lebanese, and not just those who are party members, and will serve as a source of anxiety, even for Lebanese who are not party loyalists. Therefore, the Lebanese state and Hezbollah might have to work together to counter the accusations with evidence, instead of putting their heads in the sand. The party adopted this latter tactic with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, as a reaction to seeing some of its members accused of taking part in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
What leads people to think that European countries might widen the vagueness of the sanctions against Hezbollah is the linking of the decision to an affirmation that they intend to continue dialogue with party leaders, because Hezbollah is an essential part of Lebanese society, despite the dangerous accusations they have made against the party. If this is true, then it means that there is European-Iranian convergence when it comes to maintaining stability in Lebanon, requiring that dialogue be retained with a party classified as terrorist.
However, there is another side to the political exploitation of the decision, because it raises the question of how Iran will deal with it. President Hasan Rowhani, who will take office in August, was elected because his priority was to reduce western sanctions on Tehran, because of the harm they are doing to the country’s economy. The sanctions on Hezbollah should not be isolated from the EU’s stance on Iranian policy in the region, and the nuclear issue; Hezbollah plays a prime role in these, in Lebanon and in Syria.
This is another complicating factor when linking the Lebanese situation to the complicated regional one. Will the Europeans link negotiations over sanctions to negotiations over Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and Syria?
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily represent or reflect the editorial policy of Arabstoday.