US sanctions Hezbollah MPs over Iran support

It marks the first time the United States has sanctioned members currently seated in the Lebanese parliament.
Thursday 11/07/2019
Amin Sherri, a Lebanese lawmaker of the Hezbollah bloc, attends the weekly meeting of his parliamentary bloc, in a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, July 11, 2019. (AP)
Amin Sherri, a Lebanese lawmaker of the Hezbollah bloc, attends the weekly meeting of his parliamentary bloc, in a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, July 11, 2019. (AP)

LONDON - The US Treasury Department placed economic sanctions on a Hezbollah security official and two members of Lebanon's parliament suspected of using their positions to further the aims of the Tehran-backed militia and "bolster Iran's malign activities."

It was the first time the United States sanctioned members currently seated in the Lebanese parliament. Trump administration officials said the Treasury's action makes clear there is no dividing line between Hezbollah's political and militant wings.

The United States designated lawmakers Amin Sherri and Mohammad Raad as well as Hezbollah security official Wafiq Safa under an order that targets terrorists and those providing support to terrorists or acts of terrorism.

"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," Sigal Mandelker, US under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement July 9.

Hezbollah "threatens the economic stability and security of Lebanon and the wider region, all at a cost to the Lebanese people," she added.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been pushing for such a move since his March visit to Beirut, posted on Twitter: "Today’s sanctions against senior Hezbollah officials are part of the United States’ effort to counter Hezbollah's corrupting influence in Lebanon. We call on our allies to designate Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organisation."

The sanctions brought to 50 the number of Hezbollah individuals and entities blacklisted by the US Treasury since 2017.

Washington has increased sanctions against Iran in recent months, as well as Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organisation. This "maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime... and its proxies has already succeeded in limiting the financial support Hezbollah receives," Pompeo said.

In response to the US move, Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said the sanctions did nothing to foster financial stability in the country. "There is no justification whatsoever for escalating these sanctions," he said on Twitter.

Hezbollah lawmaker Ali Fayyad described the sanctions as "an insult for all the Lebanese people." He said the Lebanese government must take a stand against the sanctions because they infringe on Lebanese sovereignty.

Lebanese parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said, in a statement, that the sanctions against the officials from Hezbollah, a major ally of Iran, constitute "an aggression against parliament and certainly an aggression against Lebanon."

Berri's Amal Movement is allied with Hezbollah, a major political player that took 13 seats in Lebanon’s May 2018 parliamentary elections and secured three cabinet posts.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri took a different stand, saying the US move marked “a new direction” but would not affect the work of parliament or government.

“It is a new matter that we will deal with as we see fit,” he said in a statement. “The important thing is to preserve the banking sector and the Lebanese economy and, God willing, this crisis will pass sooner or later.”

He added that the sanctions issue should not be exaggerated.

Hezbollah was established by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps during Lebanon's civil war in the 1980s. It is among the most effective armed groups in the region, extending Iran's influence near the Israeli border.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah's power exceeds that of the Lebanese armed forces and. along with its allies, it has more power than ever in parliament and the government.

The US Treasury Department alleges that Sherri pressured financial institutions to help Hezbollah limit the effects of US sanctions. Sherri allegedly threatened Lebanese bank officials and their family members after the bank froze the accounts of a Hezbollah member sanctioned by the United States, a statement issued by the department said.

Sherri also has ties to Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of al-Quds Force and the architect of Tehran's regional strategy.

Raad was elected to Hezbollah's Shura Council in 2009 and is part of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah's inner circle. He is the leader of the Hezbollah lawmakers' bloc.

The US Treasury said Raad met in 2017 with Hezbollah businessmen Adham Tabaja and Husayn Ali Fa'ur, who was sanctioned by the United States in 2015, to make sure the group's funding would continue despite sanctions.

Raad and Safa maintained a list of dozens of Hezbollah members who were to acquire foreign passports so they could be sent on long-term missions to Arab and Western countries, the department claimed.

Since 1987, Safa has been responsible for Hezbollah's coordination with the international community and with Lebanese security agencies. US Treasury officials allege that he exploited Lebanon's ports and border crossings to smuggle contraband, including illegal drugs and weapons, and facilitate travel for members of the group.

Washington's move blocks any property or interests in property that the three have within US jurisdiction. It bans Americans from engaging in transactions with them and prohibits transactions involving the three from moving through the United States.