Brazil Considers Labeling Hezbollah as Terrorists in Pivot to U.S.

Samy Adghirni

(Bloomberg) -- Brazil is considering designating Lebanese group Hezbollah a terrorist organization, as President Jair Bolsonaro increasingly aligns his government with the U.S. on foreign policy.

Officials are reviewing their options to move forward with the idea, which is being discussed at the highest levels of government but doesn’t have across-the-board support, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter. It wouldn’t be easily implemented due to the particularities of Brazilian law, they added, requesting anonymity because the discussion isn’t public.

The idea is part of Bolsonaro’s efforts to forge stronger ties with Donald Trump, with whom he also seeks a trade deal. It also fits into the world-view of Brazil’s right-wing president and his inner-circle. During last year’s presidential campaign, his son Eduardo, who may become the Brazilian ambassador to the U.S., already advocated a strong stance against Hezbollah, and Hamas.

Yet the move could strain relations with Iran, a Hezbollah ally which imports $2.5 billion of Brazilian products per year, and displease Brazil’s influential Lebanese community. The government also worries it could make the country a target of terrorism, said one of the people. A decision could be announced before Bolsonaro visits in October the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two countries strongly opposed to Hezbollah.

Contacted by Bloomberg, Brazil’s foreign ministry said it doesn’t consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization and has no plans to change its status for now. The president’s office, the justice ministry and the federal police, responsible for enforcement of anti-terror laws, declined to comment.

Currently, Brazil only considers as terrorists those groups already labeled as such by the UN Security Council, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. It can bar the entry, arrest, and freeze assets of people suspected to be part of them.

Growing Pressure

The Brazilian leader is at the same time willing and under pressure from the U.S. to put Hezbollah on the terrorist list. In a November meeting with then President-elect Bolsonaro, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said Trump expected to boost cooperation with Brazil on terrorism, be it against Hezbollah, Hamas or others.

The temperature rose further last month when Argentina became the first Latin American nation to label Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shia Islamist group with an armed wing, as a terrorist organization. On Monday Paraguay announced its decision to follow suit.

“Brazil has been under international pressure for many years to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group,” said Jorge Lasmar, a terrorism expert and professor of international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais. “There can be serious consequences, for example creating friction with Iran and other countries with a relevant number of Shiites, such as Lebanon.”

The U.S. has urged Latin American countries to denounce Hezbollah as part of its anti-Iran strategy. Argentina finally did so during the 25th anniversary of the bombing of a Jewish community center that killed 85 people. Argentina and the U.S. blame Hezbollah and Iran for the attack. Both deny the accusations. Brazil has recently recognized the group’s presence in South America.

The U.S. government shares intelligence about Hezbollah with Brazil because its government is trusted and law enforcement agencies are good, Admiral Craig Faller, Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told a small group of reporters in Rio de Janeiro on Monday.

End of Neutrality

Bolsonaro and Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo have repeatedly vowed to break with Brazil’s decades-old tradition of multilateralism and neutrality that allowed former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to keep trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S. and its enemies. Instead, Brazil is getting so close to the U.S. and its allies that Bolsonaro earlier this year promised to move the country’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, following on Trump’s footsteps. The pledge triggered intense criticism from Brazilian meat exporters who feared losing market in the Middle East, forcing the president to open only a trade bureau in Jerusalem, rather than an embassy.

Brazil also followed the U.S. in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as president of Venezuela. Eduardo Bolsonaro‘s nomination as ambassador to Washington has received Trump’s blessing but has yet to be approved by Brazil’s Senate.

Among the obstacles to press ahead with the plan is the fact that Brazilian law is vague when defining terrorism. Currently, Brazil narrowly defines acts of terror but not terrorist organizations. It also completely ignores political motivation behind attacks. That means Congress’ may need to approve any specific measures against Hezbollah.

“Brazil’s legal definition of terrorism is narrow; foreign and national concepts on this topic tend to clash,” said Rogerio Sanches Cunha, a legal scholar and expert in anti-terror Brazilian laws.

Hezbollah, or the party of God in Arabic, is at the same time an armed group, a political party and a social organization. It sits in the Lebanese cabinet and has considerable geopolitical power. It is considered a terrorist group by many countries, including the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Germany sees Hezbollah’s military wing as terrorist but not its political and social branches. Russia and China don’t consider it as a terrorist group.

(Updates with Paraguay’s decision to label Hezbollah a terrorist group)

--With assistance from David Biller and Bruce Douglas.

To contact the reporter on this story: Samy Adghirni in Brasilia Newsroom at sadghirni@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net, Walter Brandimarte

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