Hezbollah could be banned in UK in bid to toughen Iran stance

Political wing not yet proscribed as ministers wanted to keep contact with Lebanon

By Patrick Wintour

Source: The Guardian

 

Ministers are pressing to toughen the government’s stance towards Iran by proscribing the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah in Britain.

Hezbollah is a Lebanese-based political party and militia, and since 2008 the UK has banned only Hezbollah’s military wing or apparatus, not its political arm.

Hezbollah supporters carry their party flags in Beirut, Lebanon. Photograph: Nabil Mounzer/EPA

The call to ban the group has been a longstanding demand of the British Jewish community, and many Tory MPs are eager to use an outright ban to contrast the Conservative approach to antisemitism with that of the Labour party.

The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has been pushing for tougher action, but reports of an announcement by the home secretary, Sajid Javid, at the Tory conference were not confirmed.

Hunt is also eager to find ways to put pressure on Iran in the wake of its refusal to release the Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. He has accused Iran of using her as a diplomatic pawn.

Critics of Hezbollah, including the Labour MP Joan Ryan, the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, claim there is not any true distinction between the military and political wings, arguing they both promote anti-semitic propaganda, the export of terror and the extinction of Israel.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her husband, Richard. Photograph: PA

According to Home Office assessments, Hezbollah is committed to armed resistance to the state of Israel.

A total ban would help Javid to argue he is closing down so-called safe spaces for terrorism.

Until recently the government has argued that the political wing is not proscribed because ministers, acting on security service advice, have to strike a balance and maintain contact with the Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is a member. The security minister Ben Wallace has said the police have sufficient powers to prosecute cases of racial hatred.

In a statement soon after becoming foreign secretary, Hunt described Hezbollah as an “outrageous, disgusting” organisation and said he deplored the group in its entirety.

The chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, has argued that proscription of the political wing would not conflict with the UK’s duty as a government to speak to ministers in the Lebanese government.

Hezbollah, which is mainly Shia supported and Iranian financed, is already considered a terror group by the US, Canada, Israel and the Arab League.

The European Union banned the political wing of Hezbollah in 2012 after an attack by members of the organisation on an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria in 2012, which resulted in the deaths of five Israelis and their Bulgarian Muslim bus driver.

During a lengthy meeting at the UN general assembly in New York on Thursday, Hunt pressed his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, to intervene in the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been held in jail for two years. Hunt came away believing Zarif understood the UK position.

He said: “The central issue here is that the Iranian government is detaining innocent people as a tool of diplomatic leverage, and we cannot operate on that basis. Zarif understood the British position, but what happens inside the Iranian regime frankly is more complex. We are not going to let this situation rest, or ignore the problem.

“I want Iran to publicly recognise that this is a situation that they need to address and that this is not a stable situation. What they are doing is holding innocent people to create diplomatic leverage.”