Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah and Amal Movement gesture as they ride in a car in Marjayoun, Lebanon May 7, 2018.
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
The US decision on Tuesday to blacklist three Hezbollah operatives, including two Lebanese MPs, is another indication of Washington’s more “assertive and aggressive” policy against Iran and its proxies, Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt Yitzhak Levanon, an expert on Lebanon, said on Wednesday.
While over the last few years the US has blacklisted some 50 Hezbollah operatives, Levanon said, what is significant in the latest move is that it targets politicians, signaling to the whole world that the US makes no distinction at all between Hezbollah’s so-called political and military wings.
For years, he said, the US and Israel have said that any distinction was artificial, and that a terrorist group is a terrorist group, while many European countries – foremost France and Germany – continue to separate the two, saying that Hezbollah parliament members may agree with the organization’s goals, but are not themselves terrorists.
The US Treasury imposed sanctions on Lebanese MPs Amin Sherri and Muhammad Raad, as well as Wafiq Sada, who is in charge of Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit responsible for coordinating with Lebanese security agencies.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the sanctions were part of efforts to counter Hezbollah’s “corrupting influence” in Lebanon.
The US Treasury said the two parliamentarians were sanctioned for acting on behalf of Hezbollah. In an unusual move, it also released photos of the individuals, including one where Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani has his arm around Sherri’s shoulder.
Pompeo said the three officials “have exploited their positions to smuggle illicit goods into Lebanon, pressure Lebanese financial institutions to assist Hezbollah, undermine Lebanese institutions and evade US sanctions against Hezbollah facilitators and financiers.”
The action bars US citizens from dealing with the three individuals and blocks any assets they may hold in the United States. It also limits their ability to access the US financial system.
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri slammed the move on Wednesday, saying it is “an assault on the parliament and as a result, an assault on all of Lebanon.” Berri is a close Hezbollah ally.
Lebanon’s dollar-denominated sovereign bonds fell and the cost of insuring exposure to its debt rose on Wednesday after the sanctions. Meanwhile, five-year credit default swaps (CDS) jumped 17 basis points (bps) from Tuesday’s close to 925 bps, according to IHS Markit. CDS last traded at these levels in January, when fears of a potential debt restructuring rattled Lebanon investors.
“These sanctions are unwarranted and do not serve financial stability,” said Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a senior Berri aide, on Tuesday night in a TV interview. “Lebanon and its banks are committed to all the legislation and there is no justification at all for escalating these sanctions.”
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is scheduled to speak on Friday, during which he is expected to address the issue.
Levanon said that the effectiveness of the sanctions will be determined by whether or not the men have money or assets in the US or elsewhere which Washington can seize.
He also said that this action should be seen within the context of sanctions the US government took recently against senior Iranian leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. American sanctions against Iran, he said, have had a significant influence on the amount of money the Islamic republic is sending to Hezbollah.
“Iran does not have a lot of money left because of the sanctions,” he said. “And now the US is hitting it from the other side. America wants to dry out Iran and its proxy in Lebanon.”
Levanon said the sanctions should also be seen as an attempt to pressure Germany and France not to distinguish between Hezbollah’s military and political wings. In addition, he said, it is also an effort to sow division inside Lebanon between the government and Hezbollah, and show that Hezbollah is preventing the country from prospering
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, meanwhile, said on Twitter Wednesday that he regrets the sanctions and will pursue the matter with the US authorities.Reuters contributed to this report.
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