Washington’s efforts to curb Iranian proxy are harshly criticized in Lebanon.
By MOHAMMAD AL-KASSIM/THE MEDIA LINE
Lebanon’s top lawmaker slammed sanctions imposed by the United States on fellow legislators from Hezbollah, calling the decision an assault on parliament and the country.
The harshly worded statement from Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, head of Hezbollah’s fellow Shi’ite Amal party, came a day after Washington announced new sanctions against Hezbollah officials, including the two legislators.
The newest set of punitive actions by the US Treasury Department – the first by Washington to target Hezbollah’s elected politicians – is seen as part of the Trump Administration’s continued effort to exert pressure on Tehran and its allies in order to curb the Islamic Republic’s growing influence in the region. Hezbollah is viewed as an Iranian proxy.
Washington accuses the legislators of planning ways to help the organization circumvent American sanctions on Iran.
“Hezbollah uses its operatives in Lebanon’s parliament to manipulate institutions in support of the terrorist group’s financial and security interests, and to bolster Iran’s malign activities,” said Sigal Mandelker, the US undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence.
Three men, Amin Sherri, Muhammad Hasan Raad and Wafiq Safa, were added to a US terrorism blacklist on Tuesday. The US Treasury says Hezbollah uses its power in the Lebanese parliament and government to advance its militant activities.
Raad, 64, is head of the parliamentary bloc of the party and has been an MP since 1992. Sherri, 62, is a 17-year Hezbollah veteran of parliament, representing Beirut.
According to the Treasury Department, Safa is in charge of the group’s money dealings and facilitates its smuggling of weapons and drugs.
Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese army general, told The Media Line that the US relationship with Israel was behind the latest American move.
“The US makes no secret that it supports Israel whether it is just or unfair, Farhat said. “In the course of pressuring the Lebanese government to confront Hezbollah in favor of Israel, it labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization without justifying this decision.”
The Islamist group, he stated, “resisted the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and forced the Israeli army to withdraw unconditionally from occupied territories [in southern Lebanon, in 2000] and is still confronting Israeli aggression, as it did in 2006” during what is known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War.
Farhat added that these sanctions would fail to change Lebanese policy.
“The Lebanese government will ignore these measures and will not move against Hezbollah, because it is part of the Lebanese national fabric,” he said. “The members of the parliament listed on the sanctions list and the other members were elected by the Lebanese people in a fair election monitored by international bodies.”
The sanctions ban US and international banks, as well as individuals, from doing business with those on the list.
During a visit to Lebanon in March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Lebanese leaders to curb Hezbollah’s political influence, accusing the group of being part of “the dark ambitions of Iran.”
Another Lebanese politician, Hezbollah lawmaker Ali Fayyad, told local media that the sanctions imposed on Tuesday were “a humiliation for the Lebanese people.” Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil took to social media to protest the move, tweeting that the US sanctions were “unjustified” and a “concern all the Lebanese, even if they are directed [only] at Hezbollah.”
The Lebanese movement is considered by the US, the European Union, the Arab League and Israel to be a terrorist organization. It is under tremendous pressure domestically for its involvement in the civil war in neighboring Syria and for its close relationship with Iran.
Iranian journalist Mehdi Mahmoudi told The Media Line from Tehran that there was very little the Lebanese party could do to circumvent the US measures. He said Iran used to give Hezbollah upward of $700 million a year, but because of the crippling US sanctions levied on Tehran, that sum had not been delivered to the group of late, depriving it of much-needed financing.
“I think US sanctions on Hezbollah are related to Iran,” Mahmoudi said. “This is part of a larger plan to cut Hezbollah’s funding sources and to weaken Hezbollah generally. The Americans believe Lebanese representatives close to Hezbollah help fund the group, but I think it is unlikely these sanctions will hurt Hezbollah.”
In a rare move, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah issued an appeal to supporters for contributions. This is seen as a sign that the US efforts to dry up the group’s financial resources are working.
Mahmoudi said that despite all the challenges facing Hezbollah, it still had solid support in Lebanon.
“Perhaps Hezbollah can’t do anything on its own, but it will take action via the Lebanese government and parliament,” he stated. “For example, Speaker Nabih Berri has called on the International Parliamentary Union to take the necessary stance on the US sanctions against Lebanon’s MPs.”
Hezbollah is a powerful political and military force in Lebanon, part of the ruling coalition, and has the support of a majority of the country’s Shi’ites. It won 13 out of the parliament’s 128 seats in the May 6, 2018, election. It controls three government ministries.
The latest sanctions bring to 50 the number of Hezbollah individuals and entities blacklisted by the US since 2017.