In showdown against Iran, US sees a front next door
WASHINGTON - In the pursuit of its multifaceted war against Iran, the United States is cracking down on Hezbollah’s activities as far as in Latin America, recently convincing Argentina to designate the Lebanese group a terrorist organisation.
The pressure in Latin America aims to further isolate Iran and its surrogates after US sanctions left the Iranian government strapped for cash and unable to pay its regional proxies.
In 2018, before US sanctions against Iran went into effect, US Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Sigal Mandelker estimated that Iranian funding to Hezbollah totalled $700 million a year.
The reduction in funding from Iran forced Hezbollah to make major spending cuts and rely more heavily on fundraising efforts at home and abroad. Some of its efforts focused on sources in the Western Hemisphere.
The activities of Hezbollah’s suspected members in Venezuela and the border area of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, known as the Triple Frontier, have been a concern for the United States.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Hezbollah’s Latin American affiliates are “designed to generate revenues for Hezbollah and its activities, which are largely conducted in the Middle East, to help them make payroll throughout the Middle East.” The Triple Frontier is considered the site of the largest illicit economy in the Western Hemisphere and hosts a large population of Lebanese Shias.
The US government has increasingly pressed Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organisation to crack down on its funding. Argentina designated Hezbollah as such in July, on the anniversary of the 1994 Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AIMA) car bomb attack in which Hezbollah and Iran were suspected of involvement.
During a trip to Argentina, Pompeo offered a $7 million reward on the behalf of the United States to find Hezbollah operatives accused of committing the AIMA attack. Argentina is the first Latin American country to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.
US Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, introduced a resolution that, fellow sponsor of the measure, Senator Mark Rubio, a Republican from Florida, said aims to “recommit to helping the government of Argentina seek justice for the victims and their families” through the designation of additional funds to the country.
US Representative Lee Zeldin, a Republican from New York, introduced the Countering Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Military Act of 2019, which would withhold 20% of US military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), unless the president can certify the LAF has taken “steps to end Hezbollah and Iran’s influence over the LAF.”
The United States provides the LAF with more than $100 million in military assistance. The funding is meant to stem the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon but there is evidence that Hezbollah has influence over the military. The reduction in funds would threaten the LAF’s ability to protect Lebanon’s border with Syria.
The US Department of Justice has taken a major role in trying to curtail Hezbollah’s influence. “In January 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions created the Hezbollah Financing and Narco-terrorism Team, or the HFNT, and asked me to lead the team,” said Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Cronan during a Latin American counterterrorism conference in July.
“The decision to stand up the HFNT reflected a recognition of the ongoing, sophisticated and global threat posed by Hezbollah to the United States — and that this threat demands an aggressive and coordinated law enforcement response.”
Cronan said the United States was working with international allies to identify, sanction and prosecute Hezbollah financiers.
Joseph Humiere, executive director of the Centre for a Secure Free Society, since US President Donald Trump’s election and the establishment of the HFNT, there has been “a noticeable difference in Latin American governments’ attitudes toward Hezbollah.”
The US strategy of targeting Hezbollah aims to increase pressure on Iran, which is struggling under US-imposed economic sanctions. As part of the drive, Washington is likely to continue trying to convince partners in Latin America to join US efforts against Iran.
US senior officials said Latin American countries have done little to combat Hezbollah, allowing it and Iran to widen their encroachment near the United States.