Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who for the most part has remained underground since the 2006 war with Israel, addresses followers from a large screen set up in one of southern Beirut’s primarily Shi’ite neighborhoods last February to mark the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

Are US Sanctions Hurting Hizbullah?

Washington’s efforts to curb Iranian proxy are harshly criticized in Lebanon

Lebanon’s top lawmaker slammed sanctions imposed by the United States on fellow legislators from Hizbullah, calling the decision an assault on parliament and the country.

The harshly worded statement from Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, head of Hizbullah’s fellow Shi’ite Amal party, came a day after Washington announced new sanctions against Hizbullah officials, including the two legislators.

The newest set of punitive actions by the US Treasury Department – the first by Washington to target Hizbullah’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. Hizbullah is viewed as an Iranian proxy.

Washington accuses the legislators of planning ways to help the organization circumvent American sanctions on Iran.

“Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah in favor of Israel, it labeled Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah, 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 Hizbullah’s political influence, accusing the group of being part of “the dark ambitions of Iran.”

Another Lebanese politician, Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah.”

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.

Washington has repeatedly accused Tehran of sponsoring Hizbullah. Last year, Sigal Mandelkerm the US Treasury under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, criticized the Iranian government’s funding of the group.

“Iran provides upwards of $700 million a year to Hezbollah,” Mandelker said.

That figure is more than triple the $200 m. previously estimated by the US before Hizbullah became embroiled in the Syrian civil war.

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. 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 Hizbullah are related to Iran,” Mahmoudi said. “This is part of a larger plan to cut Hizbullah’s funding sources and to weaken Hizbullah generally. The Americans believe Lebanese representatives close to Hizbullah help fund the group, but I think it is unlikely these sanctions will hurt Hizbullah.”

In a rare move, Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah, it still had solid support in Lebanon.

“Perhaps Hizbullah 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.”

Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah individuals and entities blacklisted by the US since 2017.

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