The United States on Tuesday slapped sanctions on two former Lebanese ministers for alleged corruption and support of Hizbullah, vowing to isolate the Iran-backed Shiite armed group and political party.
The Treasury Department targeted former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former transport minister Youssef Fenianos but stopped short of targeting any current officials in the nation torn by economic crisis and the aftermath of a deadly explosion in Beirut.
The sanctions mean that any assets they hold in the United States will be blocked and any transactions with them liable to criminal penalties.
Khalil is a senior official with the Shiite AMAL Movement that is headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri while Fenianos is a member of the Christian Marada Movement that is allied with Hizbullah and the Syrian government.
The U.S. Treasury said Khalil and Fenianos “provided material support to Hizbullah and engaged in corruption.”
Commenting on the sanctions, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “for too long, Lebanon’s political leaders have ignored their responsibility to address the needs of their people and instead built a political system that serves their private interests.”
“The August 4 explosion at the Beirut port is the most recent and tragic demonstration of Lebanon’s dysfunctional political system, which has also enabled a terrorist group to hold the country’s governance hostage to its own agenda. The United States supports the Lebanese people’s call for reform, and we will use all available authorities to promote accountability for Lebanese leaders who have failed their people,” Pompeo added.
He charged that “while holding positions in previous Lebanese cabinets, Fenianos and Khalil directed political and economic favors to Hizbullah, including ensuring Hizbullah-owned companies won government contracts worth millions of dollars and moving money from government ministries to Hizbullah-associated institutions.”
Pompeo added: “Today’s designations demonstrate that Lebanese politicians who have provided a false veneer of political legitimacy to Hizbullah or abused their positions to direct public funds to the terrorist group are as responsible for its entrenched influence as Hizbullah’s own members or the corrupt businessmen and money launderers that have helped fund the group for decades.”
Noting that Hizbullah depends on Lebanon’s “corrupt political system” for “survival,” the top U.S. diplomat warned that “anyone helping to advance Hizbullah’s political or economic interests is further eroding what remains of effective governance and facilitating financing for terrorism.”
“The Lebanese people deserve better, and the United States will continue to support their calls for an end to corruption and political stagnation,” Pompeo went on to say.
U.S. officials have been warning that a new wave of sanctions will target allies of Hizbullah, which is considered a “terrorist” organization by Washington.
The U.S. has been targeting Hizbullah with sanctions for years but this is the first time it has imposed sanctions on officials of parties that are allied with Hizbullah.
The action comes as the United States, as well as former colonial power France, press for a new government in Lebanon to push urgent reforms.
But while France regards Hizbullah pragmatically, recognizing its constituency among Shiites in Lebanon, Washington has stepped up its campaign against the movement.
Khalil served as finance minister from 2014 until April this year when a new technocratic cabinet took over amid street protests in which he was frequently accused of graft.
The Treasury Department said that Khalil, who has also served as health minister, helped direct funds to Hizbullah institutions to evade U.S. sanctions.
Fenianos, according to the Treasury Department, received “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from Hizbullah in return for political favors.
It said he also provided sensitive documents to Hizbullah on the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which has recently found a member of Hizbullah guilty over the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Asked if further action was planned, a U.S. official said Tuesday’s sanctions “should serve as a warning that the United States will not hesitate to sanction any individual or entity that supports and enables Hizbullah’s terrorist and illicit activities.”