By Genevieve Kotz
The House Foreign Affairs Committee called on President Obama to do more to counter Hezbollah, a growing threat for U.S. security in the Middle East.
“The president needs to realize that forgoing old alliances in the region to legitimize relations with, and legitimize itself, the Iranian regime, is a strategic calamity that will have terrible consequences for the region and for our national security interest for years to come,” subcommittee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said.
The House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa met at the Rayburn building on March 22 to discuss the growing threat of Hezbollah, a Shi’a Islamist militant group.
“This Shi’a Islamist group is an Iran proxy group that is known to be one of the world’s most dangerous and capable terror organizations,” Ros-Lehtinen said, noting the group is trained, equipped and funded by Iran’s Quds force.
Ros-Lehtinen said Obama needed to create a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS and the Assad-Hezbollah-Iran relationship, as well combat Russian transfers from Russia to Iran and Hezbollah.
“The president needs to use the tools in his disposable to sanction Hezbollah and cut off its network,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Led by Ros-Lehtinent, the subcommittee met with three witnesses who were experts on security and defense in the Middle East. Dr. Matt Levitt, Tony Badran and Dr. Daniel Byman all stressed the importance of weakening Hezbollah and strengthening security in the Middle East.
“Lebanon has become a critical hub in Hezbollah’s criminal activities,” Dr. Badran said. “It has unfortunately not been countered by U.S. policy in recent years.”
Dr. Byman said he has been advocating for the U.S. to help build up the Lebanese armed forces and strengthen the Lebanese state to help defend them against Hezbollah.
“For the most part though, I think we need to recognize that U.S. efforts to do this have failed,” Dr. Byman said.
Dr. Badran also said Hezbollah presents an increasingly dangerous threat for Israel. It had attacked Israel in 2006, in which Hezbollah launched over 4,000 rockets indiscriminately into Northern Israel within a 34-day period. Dr. Badran said the current situation in Israel could accelerate in the near future.
“It’s going to be far bloodier than anything we’ve ever seen on both sides,” Dr. Badran said, noting that Hezbollah as the capacity to launch anywhere from 1000 to 1500 missiles a day.
Hezbollah currently has a cease-fire with Israel, but Ros-Lehtinen warned against letting down defenses against the Islamist group.
“Make no mistake about it. The cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah has nothing to do with Hezbollah not wanting to fight Israel,” Ross-Lehtinen said, “It has everything to do with the terror group restocking and building up its missile and rocket stockpile so it can once again launch an all-out attack against the Jewish state.”
Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has made it largely more cautious in take on Israel, Dr. Byman said.
“Hezbollah is in a time of transition and this is in large part because of civil war,” Dr. Byman said. “They’ve proven a vital ally to the Syrian regime.”
The hearing also discussed the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah, as Hezbollah is a proxy group of Iran and strengthening Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
Ros-Lehtinen criticized the recent nuclear deal between Iran, the U.S. and several world powers, calling it a “weak and dangerous” nuclear agreement. Ros-Lehtinen said that Hezbollah receives financial and material support from Iran.
“It is clear that Hezbollah represents a growing threat to our national security interests,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Now with the regime receiving this financial windfall of over $100 billion, it is not only reasonable to expect Iran to increase its support for its proxy, it is as near of a guarantee as one can have.”
The hearing also discussed Russian involvement within the Middle East region. Ros-Lehtinen said Hezbollah has advanced Russian-made weapons and Dr. Levitt said there was a “de facto relationship” between Hezbollah and Russia.
“Any time we have Russia, Iran and Hezbollah operating in the same theater with the same objectives, it cannot be good for the security and the stability of the region,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Ros-Lehtinen said Hezbollah is present around the world, including in the Western hemisphere, where they have participated in drug trafficking, smuggling networks and terror operations in Central and South America.
“The fact is that there are activities here in the western hemisphere that we have to be extremely cognizant of,” Dr. Levitt said, noting that the most recent Hezbollah-related plot was reported in Peru.
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) explained that despite being deemed a terror organization by the U.S. since 1997, Hezbollah operates around the world as a political group, fundraising through Europe and Latin America.
“It is time for the world to call Hezbollah what it is: a terrorist organization that murders innocent civilians at the behest of Iran,” Deutch said.