By Seth J. Frantzman
December 29, 2017
An explosive and controversial report alleging the Obama administration soft-pedalled investigations into Hezbollah’s drugs and weapons trade due to the desire to get the Iran deal done is making waves in Washington. It could have major ramifications for the region as well, particularly because the Trump administration has Hezbollah in its crosshairs.
Politico published on December 18 a major investigative report by Josh Meyer titled “The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook.” Now US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has given the go-ahead to the Justice Department to look at the accusations. Former Obama administration members have critiqued the report.
In an interview with NPR, Meyer said he spent months interviewing dozens of people and reviewing court records, documents and emails. The probe into Hezbollah’s actions as an “international crime syndicate” was code-named Project Cassandra by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Some investigators believed Hezbollah was “collecting $1 billion a year from drug and weapons trafficking, money laundering and other criminal activities,” Meyer wrote.
However, Project Cassandra’s efforts, which began in 2008 and included 30 US and foreign security agencies, were hampered at the highest levels. “The Justice and Treasure departments delayed, hindered or rejected their requests… and the State Department rejected requests to lure high-value targets to countries where they could be arrested.” Meyer’s article asserts that there was a connection to the Iran Deal, and he says Obama administration officials speaking on condition of anonymity “said they were guided by broader policy objectives, including de-escalating the conflict with Iran, curbing nuclear weapons program and freeing at least four American prisoners held by Tehran.”
For the Trump administration, which rolled out a major policy to confront Iran in October, this report comes at an opportune time.
According to Meyer, two officials involved in Project Cassandra “have been quietly contacted by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans,” even before his December report was published. This is because of a previous April report about Obama’s “hidden Iran deal concessions.”
David Asher, who came from the Pentagon to help Cassandra, had initially been “tracking the money used to provide ragtag Iraqi Shiite militias with sophisticated weapons for use against US troops,” including IEDs. He had connected a Hezbollah envoy to Iran named Abdallah Safieddine to connections in South America and funneling money “to kill Americans soldiers” in Iraq.
The connection of Hezbollah to Iranian-supported militias in Iraq is also of interest to the current US administration because Secretary of Defense James Mattis urged action against these Iranian-supported units in 2011, but he was stymied in his efforts, according to a report in The Washington Post.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo has also been key to the Trump administration’s view of Iran. In October, he was interviewed at an event held by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and described Hezbollah as “at the center of so much turmoil in the Middle East.”
In contrast, the Politico piece points a finger at former CIA director John Brennan as urging “greater assimilation of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s political system.” In 2010, Brennan, then an assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, had said that “certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us, what they’re doing, and what we need to do is find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and try to build up the more moderate elements.”
Trump has made Hezbollah a centerpiece of his rhetoric. In his May speech in Riyadh to 50 Muslim countries, he applauded the Gulf Cooperation Council “for blocking funders from using their countries as a financial base for terror and designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization last year.” He praised Saudi Arabia specifically. His speech gave wind to Riyadh’s decision to cut ties with Qatar the next month.
In September, Trump again mentioned Hezbollah at his UN speech, encouraging countries to “drive them out.” In September, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley wrote an oped in The Jerusalem Post asserting that Hezbollah was a “proxy for the outlaw Iranian regime,” and that it would not give up its terrorist goals. She said the US and UN were “stepping up our efforts against them.”
In November, Saudi Arabia engineered Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation. On November 10, Riyadh and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah traded accusations that each had “declared war” on the other.
The revelations accusing the Obama administration of going easy on Hezbollah will encourage a reappraisal of the efforts against the organization as the Trump administration looks at ways to pressure Iran that do not involve tearing up the Iran deal itself.
The US is still funding and equipping the Lebanese army even as it critiques the role of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government.
Jonathan Schanzer, a senior vice-president at FDD says that the recent revelations will add urgency to the fight against Iran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq. “That being said this is more of a western hemisphere issue, so bureaucratically the focus will shift south of the border,” because of the connections to drug trafficking. It will also shine a greater light on the previous administration’s deficiencies in tackling the Iranian threat network he argues.
The Politico article could be just thing to get the ball rolling on the administration’s goals for 2018.