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 National - News - - NEWS - JOYCE KARAM Wash­ing­ton DAVID ENDERS Beirut

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

EPA

A Hezbol­lah sup­porter car­ries images of mil­i­tary com­man­der Mustafa Badr Al Din, right, and Has­san Nas­ral­lah, left

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