Hezbol­lah says US mea­sures won’t af­fect group

The Mercury News - - Other Views - By Zeina Karam

BEIRUT >> Hezbol­lah on Wed­nes­day dis­missed a mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar re­ward of­fered by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in re­turn for in­for­ma­tion on two of its key op­er­a­tives, de­scrib­ing it as an on­go­ing at­tempt to “de­mo­nize” the group.

The tougher U.S. mea­sures, in­clud­ing a plan to fur­ther tighten sanc­tions im­posed on Hezbol­lah, are part of a larger ef­fort to ramp up pres­sure on Iran, which has ex­panded its in­flu­ence across the re­gion through the Le­banese mil­i­tant group and other prox­ies.

U.S. and Is­raeli of­fi­cials have ex­pressed mount­ing con­cern about the ex­pand­ing foot­print of Hezbol­lah and other Ira­nian-backed forces in war-torn Syria, and are look­ing for ways to pres­sure Tehran. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is threat­en­ing to scut­tle the land­mark 2015 nu­clear deal with Tehran, a process he could ini­ti­ate in the com­ing days.

“The U.S. and Is­rael are con­cerned about Iran con­sol­i­dat­ing its po­si­tion in Syria. With no re­li­able sign that ei­ther party is will­ing to do any­thing de­ci­sive about that, they’re left with op­tions such as sanc­tions, ar­rest war­rants and the like,” said Faysal Itani, a se­nior fel­low with the At­lantic Coun­cil’s Rafik Hariri Cen­ter for the Mid­dle East.

A Hezbol­lah of­fi­cial told The As­so­ci­ated Press in Beirut Wed­nes­day that the U.S. mea­sures will not af­fect the group. He was re­act­ing to the State Depart­ment’s an­nounce­ment Tues­day of a to­tal of $12 mil­lion for in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to the lo­ca­tion, ar­rest or con­vic­tion of two se­nior com­man­ders.

“It is part of the con­tin­u­ous ef­forts to de­mo­nize Hezbol­lah. They are false ac­cu­sa­tions that will not have any ef­fect on the op­er­a­tional ac­tiv­i­ties of Hezbol­lah,” the of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity in line with party reg­u­la­tions.

The re­wards are the first of­fered by the United States for Hezbol­lah lead­ers in a decade, and come amid height­ened U.S.-Iran ten­sions fol­low­ing Trump’s elec­tion.

Trump has called the nu­clear deal one of Amer­ica’s “worst and most one-sided trans­ac­tions” ever. He is ex­pected to de­cline this week to cer­tify Iran’s com­pli­ance and re­fer the mat­ter to Con­gress. He also is ex­pected to tar­get Iran’s para­mil­i­tary Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard with new sanc­tions.

On Wed­nes­day, Ira­nian For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif warned of a tough re­sponse if Trump presses ahead with his threats to scut­tle the nu­clear deal, say­ing Iran “will never rene­go­ti­ate” the agree­ment bro­kered un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The State Depart­ment on Tues­day of­fered up to $7 mil­lion for in­for­ma­tion on Talal Hamiyah, who it claims leads Hezbol­lah’s “in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism branch.”

An­other $5 mil­lion is be­ing of­fered for in­for­ma­tion on Fuad Shukr, a mem­ber of Hezbol­lah who runs the group’s mil­i­tary forces in south­ern Le­banon, where the group is based. The State Depart­ment said he played a key role in Hezbol­lah’s re­cent mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in Syria.

The Hezbol­lah of­fi­cial dis­missed the ac­cu­sa­tions, say­ing the United States is “the last state” to des­ig­nate peo­ple on ter­ror lists, ac­cus­ing it of sup­port­ing ter­ror­ist groups and states “that have a long his­tory in fi­nanc­ing and sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism.”

Hezbol­lah has sent thou­sands of its fight­ers to shore up Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s forces in Syria’s on­go­ing civil war and also has been fight­ing the Is­lamic State group both in­side Syria and along the Le­banese-Syr­ian border.

The Le­banese state is com­ing un­der in­creased pres­sure to rein in the group. Am­bas­sador Nathan Sales, the U.S. State Depart­ment Counter-Ter­ror­ism Co­or­di­na­tor, said Tues­day that the Le­banese govern­ment “needs to rec­og­nize (Hezbol­lah) as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

At a con­gres­sional hear­ing on Iran Wed­nes­day morn­ing, Rep. Ed Royce, the chair­man of the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, con­tin­ued the Repub­li­cans’ tough rhetoric against Hezbol­lah, de­scrib­ing its cur­rent ca­pa­bil­i­ties and arse­nal as a “pow­der keg.”

Is­raeli De­fense Min­is­ter Avig­dor Lieber­man went a step fur­ther, say­ing Tues­day that Hezbol­lah con­trols Le­banon’s army. The U.S. has given the Le­banese mil­i­tary more than $1 bil­lion in se­cu­rity as­sis­tance over the past decade, view­ing it as a coun­ter­bal­ance to Hezbol­lah and a part­ner in fight­ing al-Qaida, Is­lamic State and other ex­trem­ists.

The Hezbol­lah of­fi­cial said the U.S. mea­sures, in­clud­ing sanc­tions tar­get­ing Hezbol­lah fig­ures and in­sti­tu­tions, would have a lim­ited ef­fect on the group while harm­ing the Le­banese econ­omy.

Itani, the an­a­lyst, also said it is highly un­likely the sanc­tions would af­fect Hezbol­lah.

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