Iran’s harsh condemnation of Western meddling in its election has triggered an alert over a new wave of international terrorism after the regime backed a dramatic expansion of the network operated by Lebanon’s Hizbollah movement.
The Daily Telegraph
By Damien McElroy, Foreign Affairs Correspondent
Published: 6:54PM BST 26 Jun 2009
The country’s leaders have repeatedly lashed out at the West, blaming British and other foreign agents for inciting the biggest demonstrations, which were ignited after presidential candidates accused officials of rigging the election in favour of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardline president.
Intelligence experts have warned that rather than merely seeking to distract attention from its domestic turmoil with rhetoric, Iran will seek retaliation beyond its borders.
„Hizbollah has stretched, facilitated by Iran, across the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe and Latin America,“ said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at Sweden’s National Defence University. „It grants Iran global power and Hizbollah has become more susceptible to Iran’s efforts to project its influence.“
Intelligence experts believe that Germany, where Hizbollah has an estimated 900 operatives, is the most likely source of an attack staged by the group in Europe.
„Hizbollah is capable of striking in Germany or more likely planning an incident like the al-Qaeda cell in Hamburg that planned the attack on New York,“ said Alexander Ritzmann, a fellow at the European Centre for Democracy.
„Hizbollah operatives can be activated from Beirut or Tehran. Iran is using Hizbollah figures for its foreign policy purposes and killing the regime’s opponents.“
Hizbollah proclaims it is a Lebanese political party but acknowledges that it maintains a substantial arsenal of weapons as „resistance“ against Israel. But its footprint stretches worldwide. In recent months it has been implicated in weapons smuggling, assassination attempts and illicit smuggling schemes by prosecutors in Egypt, Azerbaijan, Belgium and the US.
General Douglas Fraser, the new head of US Southern Command, which overseas its operations in Latin America, this week warned that Hizbollah and other Iranian allies posed the greatest threat to security in his region.
„The real concern is not a nation-to-nation interaction; it is the connection that Iran has with extremist organisations like Hamas and Hizbollah and the potential risk that that could bring to this region,“ he said.
Iranian pro-democracy activists that have fled overseas aknowlege that Iran can pose a threat to activists based overseas. „Many of the Iranians that are demonstrating all over the world fear they will be identified,“ said Fatehma Shams, a student at Oxford whose husband Mohammadreza Jalaeipour hass been held in solitary confinement in Tehran for the last 10 days. „In my case I’ve been singled out and there is risks. Even my own safety is not guaranteed but I don’t care because there is a higher goal.“
The murder of the veteran head of Hizbollah’s military wing, Imad Mughniyah, who was blown up driving in Damascus last year, has emerged as a turning point for the organisation.
Intelligence officials believe that the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds force, Gen Qassem Suleimani, has tightened his control over the organisation’s main units.
„Hizbollah is not the independent outfit it was before Mughniyeh was killed,“ said a British official. „Under Mughniyeh it wouldn’t be involved in the range of activities that it is now implicated in.
„The Iranians can now pick and choose between the different units which are competing for prestige and funding.“
Frances Guy, the British Ambassador to Lebanon, held talks last week with a Hizbollah MP as part of contacts approved by David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary. A Foreign Official conceded the talks were an attempt to reduce Hizbollah’s threats to British interests.
„The point here is not to discuss Lebanese politics, there’s wider reasons for this,“ the official said.