The Trump administration has over the past months taken more aggressive sanctions measures on Hezbollah leadership amid the ongoing heightened tensions with Iran, given the Lebanese Shia paramilitary group has long been seen as an arm of the Ayatollahs on the Mediterranean.
But on Tuesday the US Treasury Department took the historically unprecedented step of placing two Hezbollah representatives in Lebanon’s parliament on its sanctions blacklist.
Starting in 2018 Hezbollah and parties considered aligned with Hezbollah vastly increased their presence and power in parliament — which created an awkward and delicate situation given limited US military aid to the Lebanese Army, which itself maintains a quietly cooperative stance the country’s most powerful militia, especially in anti-ISIS operations of the past years related to the war in Syria.
The political backlash following the new sanctions is sure to put US-Lebanon relations further on edge. According to the AFP:
The Treasury named MPs Amin Sherri and Mohammed Hasan Raad to a terror-related blacklist, saying that Hezbollah uses its parliamentary power to advance its violent activities.
Also placed on the blacklist was Wafiq Safa, a top Hezbollah official close to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.
Announcing the sanctions, the Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Sigal Mandelker, said, “Hezbollah 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.”
The White House has further accused Hezbollah of running a major global drug trade, which reaches deep into Latin America, allegedly fueling its pro-Iranian and anti-Israeli agenda around the globe, according to past claims from the State Department.
Further unprecedented is that the move for the first time makes no distinction between the “purely political” wing of Hezbollah and is paramilitary activities:
“It is time, we believe, for other nations around the world to recognize that there is no distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wing,” a senior administration official who insisted on anonymity told journalists.
“To any member of Hezbollah considering running for office, know that you will not be able to hide beneath the cover of political office,” the official said.
The newly sanctioned Lebanese politicians and Hezbollah members have been lawmakers in Beirut for years:
Raad, 64, is the head of the parliamentary bloc of the party and an MP since 1992.
Sherri, 62, is a 17-year Hezbollah veteran of parliament representing Beirut. A Treasury official said Tuesday that Sherri had threatened violence against officials of a Lebanese bank and their families last year after the bank froze the accounts of a US-sanctioned Hezbollah financier.
This is part of the broader “maximum pressure” campaign the White House has been waging against Iran over the past month, and following the recent US drone shoot down by Iran’s military.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was expected to be placed under sanctions as well, however, the US Treasury has yet to name him as on the blacklist.