The world’s attention is once again turned towards the fraught relationship between Iran and the U.S. and the growing threat of a military confrontation – a situation given much coverage in the media, both here in New Zealand and abroad. What has been less well-covered, particularly in the New Zealand media, is the nature and extent of Iranian influence in conflicts throughout the Middle East, the humanitarian consequences of this involvement, its support of terror group Hezbollah, and the harm wrought and threats posed by this Iranian proxy in Europe and elsewhere.
A pro-Hezbollah rally took place in Auckland in June last year. Does our government sufficiently understand what that means and why there is no room for complacency about this terror organisation?
Recently in the UK, The Daily Telegraph reported that MI5, together with the Metropolitan police, discovered in 2015 that Lebanese-based militant group Hezbollah was stashing bomb-making explosives in Northwest London. Three metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in ice packs were found – more than was used in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168. A man in his 40s was arrested on suspicion of plotting terrorism.
At the time, the raid was “kept hidden from the public”, according to the report, although PM David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May were personally briefed on it.
It was not until this year that the UK labelled the whole of Hezbollah a terrorist organisation; previously only its political wing was declared illegal. MPs debating whether or not to fully ban Hezbollah were among those kept in the dark about this activity.
Counterterrorism expert Matt Levitt blames half-measures, such as the partial designation of Hezbollah as a terror organization, for Hezbollah’s continuing operations in Europe, arguing that it “signaled to Hezbollah that Europe has a half-hearted commitment to countering the group’s activities.”
Hezbollah is backed by Iran. The 2015 raid came just months before the UK joined the US and other world powers in signing the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal. The Telegraph report speculated that it was kept under wraps so as not to derail the negotiations.
According to the Telegraph report, the discovery was made after a tip-off from a foreign government. The Times of Israel has since reported that it was Mossad who provided this information to British authorities.
The Telegraph also reports that the UK discovery was not in isolation, but part of an international Hezbollah plot to lay the groundwork for future attacks. Other Hezbollah plots were foiled in Thailand, Cyprus and New York. All of these were believed to have targeted Israeli interests around the world.
There have been at least seven reported terror incidents across Europe in the last eight years connected with Hezbollah. These include foiled plots in France (2018), Denmark (2018), Cyprus (2015), Germany (2017), political assassinations in the Netherlands (2018) and a deadly attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria in 2012, which killed five Israeli civilians and a driver. Of the seven incidents, at least three involved Jewish or Israeli targets and three targeted political opponents or dissidents.
Despite the shocking nature of the discovery of both the plot and the government’s suppression of it, this revelation has had little coverage in the international press. It might have been expected to warrant more attention in the UK media, particularly considering the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn – a man who may well be a future UK Prime Minister – invited members of Hezbollah to Parliament in 2009 and infamously referred to them as his ‘friends’. Britons ought to be alarmed about their possible PM’s friends.
Perhaps part of the reason for the muted reaction – at least in political circles – lies in the fact that the main parties are both implicated in appeasement of this proxy of Iran. And this pattern of appeasement extends throughout Europe and the western world. Many politicians on the conservative side of the political ledger saw the warming of relations with Iran as an opportunity to secure a large, new trading market. Hence the strong will to agree and preserve the Iran deal – despite its inherent weaknesses.
Journalist Seth Frantzman writes in the Jerusalem Post, “The revelations in the UK are another point of light in an otherwise opaque cloud that has hung over the Iran deal. Why was so much effort put in by Western powers to do this deal? Given Iran’s track record and its continued behaviour in Europe…why did Western governments think it would be moderated by the deal, when in fact it appears Iran got more brazen after 2015?”
The answer, of course, is trade. As Con Coughlin pointed out in the Telegraph in January this year, “The lucrative trade ties that many European countries, particularly Germany, France and Italy, have developed with Iran since the nuclear deal was signed mean they are reluctant to support the implementation of serious measures against Iran…Even when provided with clear proof of Iranian terrorist activity on its own soil, [the EU] it has shown that it is more interested in preserving trade ties with Tehran than safeguarding European security.”
In contrast, politicians on the far left – such as Jeremy Corbyn – are motivated to defend Iran by a shared anti-Americanism and distaste for the west, in the same way as Corbyn has defended the IRA, Hamas and Maduro of Venezuela. Corbyn has long had ties with Iran; he has received thousands of pounds in payment for appearances on Iranian’s Press TV and in 2014 spoke at an event marking the 25th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. In the speech he praised Iran’s “tolerance”, while castigating western nations.
Corbyn, a ‘champion’ of human rights, was not phased by Iran’s record of widespread human rights violations against minorities or critics of the regime, the LGBTQ+ community, or women who dare to remove their headscarves. Nor was he perturbed by its complicity in atrocities in Syria, its involvement in terror internationally and its prosecution of proxy wars across the Middle East.
Indeed, just a few days ago when the UK agreed with the US that there was credible evidence that Iran was behind the attacks on the American oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Corbyn’s response was to cast doubt on UK and US intelligence.
Currently, tensions between Iran and the west are simmering once again and Iran has declared that its uranium enrichment will soon exceed the limitations placed by the Iran deal. The deal, scrapped by the USA but maintained by Germany, France and the UK, looks to be on shaky ground, as Iran pursues its nuclear ambitions.
Meanwhile, far away in New Zealand, the same blind eye is cast toward Iran’s activities, albeit so far with less consequence. New Zealand’s conservative National government welcomed the Iran deal, and promptly commenced trade talks with Iran. According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade fact sheet, “In the long term it is hoped that the lifting of sanctions will allow for a stronger trade and economic relationship between New Zealand and Iran…During the 1980s Iran was one of New Zealand’s top five export markets. In 2017 the value of New Zealand exports to Iran was NZ $120 million.”
When asked about the human rights issues following his meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, then PM John Key responded, “We had quite a long talk about why so many people were being put to death. He reaffirmed … that that’s in relation to drug trafficking. He had said they were almost always Iranians.”
After this inadequate response the media did not pursue the line of questioning further.
The New Zealand media uniformly treated the JPCOA deal as objectively “good” and Republican and Israeli attempts to stop it as “bad”. No concerns were raised about Iran’s involvement in war, terrorism and human suffering both at home and abroad, nor about the adequacy of the controls within the deal on Iran’s production of enriched uranium, all of which were valid concerns raised by critics of the deal, particularly when billions of dollars in were released to Iran following signing of the deal which Iran was able to put back into its belligerent activities. The Iranian Ambassador, for example, was given an entirely soft interview on the deal by RNZ, in which none of these issues were raised.
Similarly, local human rights activists, such as Amnesty International, have been reserved in questioning New Zealand’s dealings with Iran.
In June 2018, at a time of much public debate around hate speech versus freedom of speech and whether Auckland city should give a platform to far-right speakers, a group demonstrated in support of Hezbollah in Auckland’s most public venue, Aotea Square.
Auckland Jews were alarmed, and Jewish leaders wrote to Mayor Phil Goff to express their dismay. Goff’s response demonstrated little concern about an open display of support for an antisemitic terror organisation in central Auckland, despite having declared – in relation to the far-right speakers – that “views that divide rather than unite are repugnant”, and that “Auckland Council venues shouldn’t be used to stir up ethnic or religious tensions”.
New Zealand Media – usually alert to racial disharmony – were similarly unconcerned about this activity. At the same time, local commentators have consistently defended Iran’s regime. In The Daily Blog, Donna Miles Mojab dismissed Iranian threats to eliminate Israel, arguing that such statements had been misinterpreted and that calling such threats ‘genocidal’ was simply a pretext for war.
It takes impressive mental gymnastics to interpret statements such as this as anything but eliminationist:
“Our stance against Israel is the same stance we have always taken. Israel is a malignant cancerous tumor in the West Asian region that has to be removed and eradicated: it is possible and it will happen.”
The wish for the “cancerous tumour” of the State of Israel to be “surgically removed” was also expressed in an Auckland mosque in October 2017, at an event attended by an Iranian diplomat which also featured Holocaust denial.
Jews in New Zealand around the world are all too aware that threats to Jews posed by Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are more than hypothetical or subject to interpretation. This month marks the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed 85 people. No party has been brought to justice for the attack, which appears to have been covered up by the Argentinian government at the most senior level. However the investigation points to the attack being executed by Hezbollah and orchestrated by Iran.
A flip-side to New Zealand’s remoteness, relative safety and tolerance is a tendency to naïve faith that those characteristics will inoculate our communities against threats that exist overseas. The tragic events in Christchurch in March have shown us that, unfortunately, New Zealand is not immune to extremism.
In the interests of pursuing lucrative trade opportunities, New Zealand has long turned a blind eye to Iran’s ongoing human rights violations, its role in destabilising the Middle East, including its support of the Houthis in Yemen and Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza, and its involvement in international terror, through proxies such as Hezbollah. Despite the threat Hezbollah poses to civilians through its ongoing terror activities, New Zealand has designated only its military wing as a terror organisation and not its political wing – a false and unworkable distinction.
Our government should follow the example of the UK, the US, Canada, the Arab League and The United Arab Emirates, among other nations, in designating the whole of Hezbollah a terror organisation, and show the world that, in PM Jacinda Ardern’s words, “violence, and extremism in all its forms, [are] not welcome here”.