US AND GULF DRIVE HOME SANCTIONS ON HEZBOLLAH
▶ GCC states follow Washington in co-ordinating action against militant group’s leader Hasan Nasrallah and nine others, including linked groups
The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on two individuals and five entities linked to Hezbollah, stepping up pressure on the Iran-backed Lebanese group.
The sanctions come a day after the Washington and Gulf Arab countries jointly sanctioned Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and nine other individuals or entities.
The US Treasury identified the individuals sanctioned on Thursday as Mohammad Bazzi and Abdallah Safi Al Din, but gave no further details.
The Treasury on Wednesday placed additional sanctions on the group’s secretary general. For the first time, the US also named the party’s deputy head, Naim Qassem, who handles much of the group’s local political dealings.
The sanctions were announced in partnership with Saudi Arabia, the co-chair of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Centre, which was formed last year, and the other TFTC member states. The UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar also imposed those sanctions in full.
The National learnt that Kuwait refrained from designating Mr Nasrallah but joined in the sanctions on the nine other individuals and groups on the list. As well as the two senior leaders, the sanctions include the head of the party’s judicial council, senior advisers, senior commanders and Talal Hamiyah, the head of the organisation that handles Hezbollah’s activities overseas.
Although hit with previous sanctions, at least two of the three companies appeared to still be operating, but employees who answered the phone said no one was available to speak about the designations.
The new sanctions are the largest co-ordinated US-GCC action against Hezbollah since Mr Trump took office.
Matthew Levitt, an expert on sanctions and a former US Treasury official who works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The National that “the fact the GCC countries – including Qatar – joined the US for most of these designations further exposes the rift between Sunni Arab states and Hezbollah”.
The joint action should be alarming to the Lebanese government, said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for New American Security. “The USGulf co-ordination is meant to be a powerful punch in the face to the status quo in Lebanon,” he said. The White House, Mr Heras said, has “decided to put Hezbollah in its crosshairs in a way that the Obama administration never dared to do”.
The timing is not great for Lebanon. A new intake of MPs are poised to take office after the country’s first parliamentary election in nine years and the tortuous, months-long horse-trading to form a new cabinet will start within days.
While Prime Minister Saad Hariri is expected to retain his post, his Future Movement fared poorly at the polls. Hezbollah and other parties that had strong showings in the polls may well demand more prominent cabinet roles.
“Hariri will be met with a lot of pressure from Hezbollah to put their people in the ministries – he’s a weak PM this time,” said Hanin Ghaddar, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The timing of the sanctions, however, probably has more to do with the US pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal than Hezbollah’s electoral success, said Chibli Mallat, a professor and lawyer in Beirut who is an expert on sanctions. He said he was concerned that the idea “Lebanon equals Hezbollah” was gaining currency in policy-making circles as the US and allies seek to pressure Iran.
“It’s finding echoes in decision-making circles in Riyadh and in the US, despite a clear indication that the electoral scene is far more complicated than concluding that Hezbollah just won,” he said.
“This is an indication that the pressure is increasing and will increase and that it is co-ordinated between the US and Saudi Arabia. My sense is the new dimension in all of this is the co-ordination between Gulf states and the United States.”
The US-GCC sanctions came a day after the US Treasury blacklisted top officials of the Iranian central bank and the Iraqbased Al Bilad Islamic Bank for allegedly funnelling millions of dollars to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah.
Iraq’s central bank then announced it was taking action against Al Bilad Islamic Bank and its chairman and chief executive, Aras Habib, who denied the US charges and pledged to provide proof to the Iraqi banking authorities.
With dozens of US sanctions on Hezbollah and institutions that are seen to be supporting, funding or supplying the party, Lebanese banks have long had to navigate the choppy legal waters in a country whose financial institutions are closely tied to and dependent on the US.
“The system is in place – and it was put in place by the central bank and the commercial banks have developed compliance units, and they usually abide with decisions like this,” one banker said.
There has not been a significant prosecution of criminal activities involving a Lebanese bank breaking US sanctions related to Hezbollah or Iran since the Lebanese Canadian Bank was forced to shut its doors in 2011 after allegations of money laundering for the group.
In a speech last October, Mr Nasrallah admitted that US sanctions had affected the group and may have made those who support them think twice about donating, but he said the sanctions were manageable.
“It will not affect our main source of financing … [and] it will not change Hezbollah’s course,” he said at the time. He also said on a separate occasion that the party did not use Lebanese banks.
A source close to the party declined to comment on the new measures when contacted on Thursday and there had been no official statement as of Thursday evening.
Timing of the sanctions is thought to have more to do with the nuclear deal exit than with Hezbollah’s election success
A Hezbollah supporter carries images of military commander Mustafa Badr Al Din, right, and Hassan Nasrallah, left