Israeli experts weigh in on Obama-Hezbollah revelation

Former Obama officials denied torpedoing the DEA initiative for political purposes.

By MICHAEL FRIEDSON & CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE
December 24, 2017 17:47
Barack Obama gives a statement at the White House

Barack Obama gives a statement at the White House. (photo credit: LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS)

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is launching a review of a US Drug Enforcement Administration investigation code-named Project Cassandra, after Politico reported that the Obama administration covertly derailed the inquiry into Hezbollah's illicit global activities in order to ink the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.

The operation was launched in 2008 to monitor the Lebanese Shiite organization’s weapons and drug trafficking practices—including funneling cocaine into the United States—which, along with money laundering and other criminal activities, generated an estimated $1 billion annually for Tehran's terror proxy.

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After investigators amassed sufficient evidence, they purportedly sought approval for indictments from the Department of Justice and Department of Treasury, both of which "delayed, hindered or rejected" the requests, according to Politico. Officials cited in the report accused then-president Barack Obama of implementing a “systematic decision” that “serially ripped apart the entire effort.”

Once the nuclear deal went into effect in January 2016, Project Cassandra members were reportedly reassigned, causing the US government to “los[e] insight” into Hezbollah’s vast illegal operations.

"This is a significant issue for the protection of Americans," Sessions affirmed in a written statement, "[and we will] evaluate allegations that certain matters were not properly prosecuted.”

For their part, former Obama officials denied torpedoing the DEA initiative for political purposes. “There are many reasonable critiques of Obama's foreign policy,” former administration official Tommy Vietor wrote. “The idea that he was soft on Hezbollah is not one of them. The story is so manufactured out of thin air…it's a figment of the imagination of two very flawed sources.”

Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau at the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, echoed this sentiment while contending that Obama was hamstrung by European indifference. "The major problem Obama had was with Europe, where most of Hezbollah's criminal activities took place," he revealed to The Media Line. "Without European backing he could not take the necessary steps.

"The report is another political hit on Obama," Nuriel continued, "as from what I know, the Americans consider Hezbollah a major threat and are willing to expend resources to scale back its operations. Obama should be judged based on his actions and after the nuclear deal was sealed he added sanctions on Hezbollah so there was a decoupling of the issues."

Nevertheless, analysts believe the new Department of Justice inquiry could lead to criminal suits being brought against Hezbollah affiliates. Some American lawmakers have gone so far as to call for a special investigation, not unlike the one currently probing alleged collusion between members of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russia. Congressman Ron DeSantis (R-FL) made clear that his National Security subcommittee is "particularly interested" in uncovering the truth.

In fact, while much of the probe has centered on the potential illegality of Obama's intervention, investigators are scrutinizing the former chief executive’s reasons for interfering to Hezbollah’s benefit: namely, to examine the assumptions and, more generally, the worldview that shaped his policy toward the organization and, by extension, Iran.

To that end, Politico cited statements made by John Brennan, who would become Obama's top counterterrorism adviser and then CIA director. As early as 2010, just one year after Obama assumed office, Brennan confirmed that the administration was looking for ways to build up “moderate elements” within the "very interesting" Hezbollah group which was no longer considered a "purely terrorist organization."

Obama loyalists see in this interpretation a reasonable justification for the former president’s actions as a path to engaging Tehran diplomatically rather than militarily. Critics not only see no reasonable indication to have believed Hezbollah was malleable, and in fact, saw the terrorist group’s militancy as intractable. This is supported by the now infamous comments by top Obama aide Ben Rhodes who bragged in an interview of manipulating an uninformed media and populace to ratify the Iranian nuclear agreement. Indeed, it is being reported that the core of the Obama team has been activated to de-toxify the alleged Obama actions vis-à-vis Hezbollah.

Those who rejected the agreement have been strengthened during the ensuing years, as Shiite Tehran continues to foment unrest in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond, arguing that by all indicators—and citing its blatant development of missile delivery systems capable of supporting nuclear weapons and flouting of United Nations Security Council resolutions—the Islamic Republic remains committed to exporting its revolutionary ideology while competing with Sunni Saudi Arabia for regional dominance.

And while proponents of the accord contend that Tehran is abiding by it, opponents continue to warn that the devil is in the existence of "sunset clauses" that will expire after 12 more years, effectively giving Iran a green-light to resume enriching uranium. At that point, the country will have pocketed all of the benefits of sanctions relief and reinforced its so-called "Shiite Crescent," a land corridor stretching through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and into the Mediterranean.

According to Efraim Kam, a Senior Research Fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, Iran's unwillingness to change course was predictable. "Obama saw the nuclear deal as a way to get Tehran to modify its strategy," he explained to The Media Line. "In the administration's view it was a jumping off point to more cooperation and dialogue.

"However," Kam highlighted, "even before the accord was concluded Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei made clear that he was not going to alter his calculus. He left no doubt that coordination would not be extended to other areas and never changed his mind for one minute."

Since taking office one year ago, President Trump has alarmed many who support his overall foreign policy by failing to acknowledge the symbiosis between Hezbollah terrorists and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Even after the Lebanese president supported Hezbollah’s undisguised violations of UNSC Resolution 1701 which forbids armed forces that are not part of the nation’s military, explaining that Hezbollah “complements” the LAF in defending against Israeli aggression; and after Israel’s defense minister verified the migration of U.S. arms into Hezbollah hands, the administration nevertheless announced more than $100 million in new military aid the Lebanese Armed Forces, in a bid to prop up the "moderate" elements in the country.

Despite President Trump’s harsh language aimed at the Islamist terrorist body, supporters and critics alike remain disappointed and concerned that the Commander-in-Chief has yet to recognize the mantra of Israel’s defense echelon, that "Hezbollah is Lebanon and Lebanon is Hezbollah."

Experts continue to warn that unless such basic realities relating to Iran and its proxies are incorporated into national security doctrines, the Islamic Republic may soon wield equal power over many more countries throughout the Middle East.


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