Background Briefing By Senior Administration Officials On Iran, the IRGC, and Hezbollah's Increased Terrorist Activity Worldwide
MODERATOR: Hey, good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining us. And let me just go ahead and introduce our speakers real quick and we’ll get it over to them. We have – first of all, this call is on background. We have [Senior Administration Official One], who’ll be Senior Administration Official One. And our second speaker is [Senior Administration Official Two], who will be Senior Administration Official Two. So I’m going to turn it right over to Senior Administration Official One for some opening remarks and then Two for some brief comments as well.
So go ahead, Senior Administration Official One.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you very much and thanks for everyone to be – for being on the call today. As many of you will have seen, yesterday we released at the State Department the annual Country Reports on Terrorism for 2012. And one of the most noteworthy conclusions when we put that report together was a marketing resurgence of terrorist activity by Iran and Hezbollah. The tempo of operational activity was something we haven’t seen since the 1990s, with attacks plotted in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa in 2012 alone.
We believe this is an alarming trend. It’s borne out by the facts and it merits closer inspection as we evaluate the landscape of terrorist activity globally. Add to this, of course, is the deepening commitment both Iran and Hezbollah have made to fight and kill on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria. That involvement, of course, is hardening the conflict and threatening to spread the violence across the region.
Hezbollah and the Iranian leadership share a similar world view and strategic vision and are seeking to exploit the current unrest in the region to their advantage. This approach has increased sectarian tensions and conflict and serves further as a destabilizing force during a time of great change throughout the region.
The activity is, as I said, alarming, but there’s also an encouraging trend at work and one I think that’s received fairly – relatively little attention in our view, and that’s the increasingly firm response among governments around the world to these actions. We’re seeing prosecutions of Hezbollah operatives in multiple jurisdictions around the world, ongoing investigations, and discussions about proscribing the group as a terrorist organization.
Now just to recap a couple of the notable incidents in 2012 that we also covered in our report, in February of this year the Bulgarian Government publicly implicated Hezbollah in a July 2012 bombing in Burgas that killed five Israelis and one Bulgarian citizen and injured 32 others. In March of this year, a court in Cyprus found a Hezbollah operative guilty of charges stemming from surveillance activities carried out in 2012 against Israeli tourists. Thailand is currently prosecuting a Hezbollah member for his role in helping plan a possible terrorist attack in that country. We understand that trial will begin in mid-June. The Qods Force is suspected of directing terrorist attacks in Georgia, India, Thailand, and Kenya in 2012.
You will also recall that the Qods Force was implicated in a 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States in Washington. Manssor Arbabsiar was sentenced yesterday to 25 years in prison for his involvement in that plot. We see no signs of this activity abating in 2013. In fact, our assessment is that Hezbollah and Iran will both continue to maintain a heightened level of terrorist activity and operations in the near future.
Now turning to Syria, Hezbollah has long been involved in the conflict and, of course, is making no – no longer making any effort to disguise or downplay the extent of its commitment to kill or die on behalf of the Assad regime. A large number of Hezbollah fighters are now operating in Syria, even though the Lebanese Government has sought to disassociate Lebanon from the Syrian crisis in the best interest of the Lebanese people. The group is openly undermining that policy and working closely with Iran to provide a range of support to the Assad regime, including fighters, weaponry, and training a large pro-regime militia.
We judge that Iran and Hezbollah have enlisted Alawite, Iraqi, Shia militant and terrorist groups to participate in counter-opposition operations in Syria. All of this support is helping the regime brutally crack down on the opposition, kill civilians, and is contributing to regional instability, notably in Lebanon. And unfortunately, it’s clear that both Hezbollah and Iran’s involvement in Syria is only deepening as they take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that their close ally survives.
Countering these activities continues to be a priority for the U.S. Government, but we’re also seeing other governments begin to take their own actions in response to Hezbollah’s global presence and operational activity. Governments are beginning to see Hezbollah for what it is, and there is a shift underway that we detect in the way that other governments are viewing the organization.
I mentioned the prosecution a minute ago of Hezbollah operatives in Cyprus and the Bulgarian Government’s finding Hezbollah responsibility for the Burgas attack. These attacks – these activities, of course, led to the most serious discussion we’ve seen within the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Crucially, France and Germany have called for Hezbollah’s military wing to be added to the EU’s terrorism list, and we’re watching that discussion very, very closely.
Recently Bahrain designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and is proposing that the GCC take up similar action across the GCC against Hezbollah. The Arab League Chief Nabil Elaraby recently weighed in on Hezbollah, urging it to stop fighting alongside the Assad regime, urging Hezbollah to reconsider its stance and not get involved in the killing in Syria and stressing that only – the only way to protect Lebanon is to protect Lebanon’s internal unity. That was issued in an Arab League statement, and I think that reflection of Arab League view is certainly a turnaround in the way Hezbollah is being viewed across the Arab world.
Of course, Hezbollah’s actions have been condemned by numerous Lebanese political figures for placing Lebanon at risk and placing the country’s interest and those of – and placing Hezbollah’s interest and those of Iran and Assad above those of the Lebanese people. President Sulayman recently urged Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria.
Looking again at the global picture, in Southeast Asia, in mid-June, the Thai Government will begin its prosecution of a Hezbollah operative who was detained in January 2012 and who led police to a warehouse located outside of the city – outside of Bangkok, where police found several thousand kilograms of explosives and bomb-making material. We’ve also seen countries beginning to crack down on Iran’s terrorist activities with Nigeria and Kenya arresting and prosecuting Iranian operatives who were in their countries engaged in various illicit activities.
I think I’ll stop there, but it does give you a sense of the global scope of activity we’re seeing on both of these – both the – both Iran and Hezbollah’s part, and as was emphasized in our report released yesterday. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Senior Administration Official Two, do you have a few remarks before we go to Q&A?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. I’m happy to make a few remarks on our – on the U.S. Government’s financial efforts with respect to Hezbollah. And I certainly will try to build upon that very comprehensive laydown of all of the illicit conduct that Hezbollah is involved in, both in Lebanon and around the world.
What I think it demonstrates is that Hezbollah would certainly hold itself out as a resistance organization and as a social organization, as a political organization. What it actually is is a terrorist organization, and not just a terrorist organization, but a broad organization that’s morally bankrupt to its very core.
As a result of all of these activities, and actually a lot of other activities, in our efforts to combat its financial support and its financial activities, we’ve adopted over the last couple of years a new approach. Traditionally, over the years, what we’ve focused on is trying to go after the terrorist financing as terrorist financing activities of Hezbollah, and we certainly continue to do that. But what I think you’ve seen over the past several years is expanding the aperture of those efforts in two ways. The first is taking a comprehensive approach to targeting all of Hezbollah’s illicit activities, and secondly, to focus more than ever before on Hezbollah’s financial activities within Lebanon and trying to make even the Lebanese financial system a hostile environment for Hezbollah to be operating in, so again, a comprehensive approach, an approach that focuses not just on the periphery, but challenging Hezbollah’s ability to conduct financial activities through the Lebanese financial system.
We’ve done that a number of ways. First of all, as I said, in the traditional way of focusing on Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, we’ve implemented a number of financial sanctions with respect to Hezbollah targeting their ties with the Iran Qods Force and just their general conduct within Lebanon. And I could be happy to go into some of those designations, if people are interested.
Secondly, we focused on Hezbollah’s activities within Syria and its alliance with the Assad regime and the violence that it’s waging upon the Syrian people and tried to highlight that through our financial and economic sanctions.
And then finally, and what I think is the most innovative aspect of our strategy, is focusing on Hezbollah’s illicit financial activities, to include its links with narcotics trafficking. We’ve taken a number of actions in which Hezbollah has been implicated under our drug kingpin sanctions program, and using Section 311 of the Patriot Act to target financial institutions within Lebanon that have been involved in these narcotics money-laundering activities and that have had links to Hezbollah. These include actions we’ve taken against the Lebanese Canadian Bank, and just within the past couple of months, against two exchange houses within Lebanon – the Rmeiti Exchange and the Halawi Exchange.
We’ve combined this with intense engagement with the Lebanese Government to try to ensure that all Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Rules and regulations and international standards are being applied throughout the Lebanese financial system to ensure the Lebanese financial system is clean and safe and integrated into the international financial system appropriately. But we’ve also made clear that if Lebanon is unable to apply Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing laws and regulations and international standards in an appropriate fashion, then it puts its access to the international financial system at risk.
So these are the efforts that we had. Again, I’d be happy to try to go into more detail on any of them, but let me wrap it up and open it up for questions. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Certainly. Ladies and gentlemen of the press, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 at this time. One moment please for our first question.
And our first question is from the line of Mr. Michael Gordon from New York Times. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you. I have two questions. One, is there any estimate of the – obviously Iran is making a large effort to supply Assad with arms, Qods Force personnel, advisors, and the like. Is there an estimate of what, in terms of resources, how much Iran is spending on this, how many billions, for example, per year? And two, there was a recent episode that’s come to light through Israeli and Nigerian officials, where they claim to have nabbed a Hezbollah cell in Nigeria that was planning attacks on Western targets and Israeli targets. Do you have any information on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: On this, I’ll take the second question there. We are watching very closely those reports coming out of Nigeria. We don’t have anything further than what is – has been announced, both by the Nigerian and the Israeli Governments. But it, again, is reflective of this global scope of operational activity that we’ve been encountering over these last 18, 24 months, and it’s something that we’re very concerned about. Africa, across the continent, has been an area that Hezbollah in particular has been active. Of course, they’ve used Africa for fundraising and traditionally, but they’ve been operationally active in a number of African countries, as have the Iranians, as we saw in the case in Kenya recently.
So we’re watching the news very, very closely out of Nigeria, but I don’t have anything further on it for you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Hi. I’ll try to answer the first question, although I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get into the amount of detail that I think you’re hoping for. With respect to Hezbollah financing, Iran has always been and remains the primary financial supporter of Hezbollah and Hezbollah survives on the resources that it derives from its Iranian support. That’s not to say that it doesn’t derive funds from other places. It certainly does, and I touched upon some of those in my previous remarks. But Iran still is vital to all of that. This is one of the reasons, as I said before, why we focus so heavily on ensuring that the Lebanese financial system is not a conducive environment for Hezbollah financial activities.
With respect to Iranian support for activities within Syria, I don’t have numbers for you. Obviously Iran is committing a significant amount of resources, both financial and otherwise, to the conflict within Syria and they’re doing it in a whole wide variety of methods and mechanisms. But I don’t have any specific details for you on that.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question, from the line of Lourdes Meluza, Univision News. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. Hi. How are you? We saw the part of your report about Mexico, and it is very – you compliment the efforts of the Mexican Government. Not only that, but you say that there is no – basically no terrorism threat from Mexico or at the border coming sort of in Mexico or from Mexico. Yet Homeland Security reports last year in November was talking about the links of Hezbollah with drug traffic organizations in Mexico. Are you not concerned about that at all? At this point there is even – they even cite indictments where in the federal district of Virginia, they substantiate reports of (inaudible) between these cartels and Hezbollah.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I’ll take that – the question. Of course, we have the Arbabsiar case, which is something that has played out in the court and there’s been the sentencing yesterday. We are quite concerned about Hezbollah and its global reach. We don’t have evidence of an operational network – Hezbollah across South America, but it’s something that we watch for very, very, very closely. We know that Hezbollah as an organization does benefit from fundraising activity or commercial activity that ultimately benefits the organization back in Lebanon. But as for an operational link to activities in South America, Central America, or Mexico, we don’t have that.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question from the line of Mr. Ron Kampeas, Jewish Telegraphic. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you. I just wanted to ask you to elaborate on what you were saying about governments – “the increasingly firm response of governments” is how you put it. And I know about, yes, the intensified considerations in Europe and even in the Gulf Cooperation Council to declare Hezbollah or to – designate Hezbollah or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, is – have you finished asking the question? I --
QUESTION: Yes, yes. I have, sorry.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure if you broke up there. Well, it is – those are – the conversation in the EU, of course, is in many ways the most significant, and I think we would all recognize that, given that this question has come up previously but has never really been taken up with the kind of seriousness we’re seeing now among governments across Europe.
What’s important, though, is that the conversation there is built really on the back of the investigations that have taken place in courts. As I noted, the Cyprus case and conviction, but also the investigation in Bulgaria that illuminates the evidence quite clearly of Lebanese operational activity commitment of terrorist acts on European soil, so the one builds on the other. We also, however, are seeing the prosecution in Thailand, which we believe is significant.
We are – the debate, of course, within the Arab League, as was noted in the GCC, is itself important, particularly when you consider where the issue and perhaps the popular image, as it were, of Hezbollah was within the Arab world just a few short years ago. That is completely reversed. Governments are onto what this organization really is, as was pointed out by my colleague. It’s a criminal organization, a terrorist organization, which really – can really no longer lay claim to its traditional self-identity or projected identity as a political organization within Lebanon.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question from the line of Joyce Karam, Al Hayat newspaper. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. Hi. I was wondering if you have any estimate on the number of fighters that Hezbollah has in Syria right now. And I know you said you expect more terrorism in the next year from Hezbollah, but given their involvement in Syria, how will this shape you think Hezbollah’s military calculation going into war with Israel or other conventional things they’ve done in the last few years?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t think we have an estimate on the number of fighters. I mean there are, of course, a lot of people trying to look at this question. I think it’s fair to say, however, that the organization has made an all-in commitment to defend and support the Assad regime and is throwing whatever resources are required at that, and of course as reports indicate is suffering the consequences as well in terms of fighters being killed in Syria as well. But we don’t have an estimate of the numbers.
With regard to what these trends indicate for what we can expect for the future and what this means for Hezbollah’s – the potential for destabilizing activity with regard to Israel, I mean I think that’s something that the organization has made a part of its identity. It is a destabilizing force within the region. It certainly is so within Lebanon and its actions in Syria and its declarations to essentially define the Syrian conflict as a sectarian conflict, which of course is sparking an intensified fight within the country of a sectarian nature. These are further indications that the organization itself plays a destabilizing role within Lebanon and then more broadly in the region if we needed further evidence of that.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question from the line of Mr. Shaun Waterman, Washington Times. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Oh, yes. Hello. Thanks for doing this, gentlemen, and – but I mean, can I just register a complaint about it being on background?
My question – I have two questions. Firstly, could you – do you see the danger – do you see any connection between what’s happening in Syria and the sort of surge of sectarian violence in Iraq, number one?
And number two, you talked about – you said we don’t have any evidence of operational networks in Central or South America or Mexico. Did you have evidence of operational networks in Thailand, Bulgaria, Cyprus, prior to the commission of these attacks last year? I guess what I’m trying to get a sense of is, I mean, were you surprised that they had this ability to launch these attacks in these places? And just sort of, can you link back to your level of confidence about your assessment with regard to the situation south of the U.S. border?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, let me start by saying that, as I noted before, the – when we released the report, we noted that the increase in activity is something we haven’t seen since the 1990s. And the 1990s was a period, of course, where Hezbollah also was operationally active, committing attacks in multiple parts of the world, to include Europe. So the fact that Hezbollah had operational networks historically in Europe is not new to us, is not surprising. And in fact, we were already in the spring of 2012 having numerous conversations with European governments about the danger that Hezbollah was posing, and that was on the basis of information we were aware of that indicated an increased operational tempo in Europe. And those conversations coincided then with the events that played out in the summer to include the attack in Bulgaria. So we were not surprised that – when – ultimately when we started to see the evidence play out and then in the course of the court case in Cyprus.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question from the line of Ilhan Tanir, BBC Turkish. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks so much. My questions, again, is Hezbollah in Syria. First question is: Two days ago, State Department and the White House condemned in strongest terms Hezbollah duties in Syria and demand immediate withdrawal. Do you have any kind of news that they are heeding your demand?
Second question is: As far as we can see, they are still fighting fiercely. If they are not heeding your demands, what is your Plan B?
And the third: The common theme now in Middle East that Russia is taking care of its allies in Middle East, but U.S. is just basically talking the talk. But when it comes to supporting its allies and Syrian rebels, forces like Syrian rebels, it’s just giving advice and watching the situation unfolding. Syrian military – head of Syrian Military Council Salim Idris has been giving interviews for the last two days and basically begging for some help. There are 30- to 40,000 people, according to different estimates, that if the town Qusayr falls to regime, they might be in danger of imminent massacre. What are you doing besides giving condemnation and talk?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I think I’m going to defer on the broader Syria questions to Ambassador Ford and those who are working this issue most closely. However, I will say that we do believe that we need to raise the concern about the involvement of Hezbollah in that conflict. We have done the same thing with our concerns about the involvement of other foreign parties, whether they be nationals of different countries moving in to join the al-Nusrah Front or al-Qaida in Iraq’s sponsorship of al-Nusrah Front, in Syria. We think that this kind of foreign involvement is – marks an escalation in the conflict, and we will condemn it from both sides.
But it’s very important that we call out Hezbollah and its activities in Syria for what they are, and I would remind that we began doing that in the fall of 2012. In fact, there were a number of sanctions and designations made by the Treasury Department in the fall of 2012, and my colleague may want to discuss those in greater detail. And that was done in – months and months ago. It’s only now, of course, that Hezbollah is owning up to the extent and level of its involvement in the conflict, which is, of course, turning the conflict into a new, more dangerous direction. And as you heard, that was described and condemned strongly by our spokesman just two days ago at the briefing.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
MODERATOR: We’ve got time for one more question, Operator.
OPERATOR: Certainly. And our next question from the line of Guita Mirsaeedi from Voice of America. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much for the conference call. Iran announced a couple of days ago that it is extending a $4 billion line of credit to Syria. I was wondering – and they’re saying that it’s for economic purposes, for reconstruction, and development of business and things like that. Do you think something like this, given the situation on the ground in Syria, is plausible? Is it legitimate, do you think? And do you – and is it even possible, considering that Iran is heavily under sanctions, financial sanctions, and Syria to some extent as well? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I’ll take that question. I mean, I think – and thanks for the question. I mean, I think it’s an important issue to point out that while the Iranian economy is going down the tubes as a result of its own mismanagement of its economy and as a result of comprehensive international sanctions, and while the Iranian people are suffering as a result of that, that Iran still manages to find resources to send to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and to support the Assad regime’s violence against its own people in Syria. I think it’s important to point that out.
The fact of the matter is, is that Iran and organizations like Hezbollah are acting irresponsibly in this regard and we have a whole wide array of sanctions that we are prepared to deploy when we see financial institutions or other types of institutions around the world that are engaged in sanction-able activity. And we’ve demonstrated that we’re prepared to use that, and we implement financial sanctions all the time with respect to entities that are involved in financial activities with Iran.
Iran is often big on promises. If we see financial activity that is sanction-able – and that’s an awful lot of different types of financial activity with Iran – we will certainly exercise our tools and ensure that the financial institutions involved are isolated from the international financial system.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our final question from the line of Mr. Adam Aigner from CNN. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hey. Yeah, thank you for doing the call. I – this question might be more from the Treasury side, but you talk about how you’ve seen more activity from Hezbollah and Iran, I guess more from the Hezbollah side too, since the 1990s and you list a lot of these sanctions and these activities you’re taking against them. But it seems if they’re able to still expand that these haven’t been effective or as effective as you would hope. Does this recent sort of spurt of activity encourage you to take further actions or look to expand the scope of the sanctions or financial actions you’re taking against these groups?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I’m sorry. Are you asking that with respect to Hezbollah? Is that what the question’s focused on?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. I wouldn’t say that our sanctions have been ineffective. In fact, I think our sanctions have been quite effective, and again, challenging Hezbollah’s ability to conduct business as usual in the international financial system at large, and most importantly within the Lebanese financial system. We have taken one important bank offline within Lebanon that was involved in a whole wide variety of illicit types of activity. We’ve targeted the ability to access the financial system through other types of financial institutions like money exchangers. And as I said before, we’ve worked very, very closely with the Lebanese financial authorities themselves to ensure that very strict anti-money laundering requirements are being imposed on Lebanese banks and financial institutions. And we – and this is not the end of this campaign; we’re in the midst of this campaign.
And as – to answer your question, and it certainly will continue. We’ll continue to monitor Hezbollah’s financial activities throughout the world. We will continue to work with our colleagues throughout the United States Government, including with U.S. law enforcement to bring people to justice who were involved in supporting Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, and we will redouble our efforts, because I think they’re important efforts, and I think they are, in fact, having an impact.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Can I just add to that, that what we’re seeing in this global response now – people that are – governments that are finally beginning to take their own actions against Hezbollah that might in some ways parallel the actions that we’ve been taking. This offers the opportunity for a significant impact upon Hezbollah and its ability to operate in the way that it has over these years. They will – we will – as I said, we’re watching very closely the EU discussion on designation of the organization, and what that offers is the opportunity for greater scrutiny of Hezbollah’s activities. It will offer opportunities for law enforcement and other actions to begin to reduce their scope of activity in a very significant way. So I think that this global recognition of Hezbollah’s destabilizing activities is going to be a very, very important step in this broader campaign.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And that does conclude our question-and-answer session at this time. I’ll turn it back to you for any closing remarks.
MODERATOR: I think that’s all we have. Thank you all for joining the call.