American Sanctions against Hezbollah Officials: An Eminently Political Message

The Trump administration is implicitly inviting Lebanon to sever its ties with the Shiite party.

The decision made by the United States on Tuesday, July 9 to widen the scope of its sanctions to include Hezbollah politicians will no doubt shake Lebanon’s political scene, which has already been weakened by a multitude of dissents and one of the most worrying economic crises, a bit more.

Though unprecedented—this is the first time that Hezbollah’s so-called political branch has been targeted in this manner—these highly symbolic sanctions do not pose a risk to the economy or the banking sector per se at the moment, according to experts, but they could embarrass Lebanon. Already undermined by a series of internal disagreements, the government is being called upon to take a stand and protest, even if only for show, against these new measures, all the while without inciting the anger of the American government, which ultimately remains the main source of funding and equipment for the Lebanese army.

For the moment, Head of State Michel Aoun confirmed that, “The issue will be followed up with the appropriate American authorities.” President of the Parliament Nabih Berri called out this “aggression,” while Prime Minister Saad Hariri spoke yesterday of a “new course” that will need to be dealt with accordingly.

Falling into step with the sanctions that have descended on Iran and its Hezbollah allies for more than a year, Hezbollah being a party that is on the United States’ list of terrorist organizations, these new American measures against Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary group, the deputy Amine Cherri and the head of the party’s security service, Wafic Safa, hold major political significance. According to numerous experts, the sanctions signify a new warning from the United States to the Lebanese government, which is anxious to distance itself as much as possible from Hezbollah.

By attacking representatives in parliament in particular, the U.S. government is sending a clear message to anyone willing to listen that there is no longer any reason to draw a distinction between the political and military branches of the Shiite party. This position was explicitly explained in the press release published by the U.S. Treasury Department, which included a photo of Cherri by Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, the branch of the Guardians of the Iranian Revolution that is responsible for external operations. This proximity, the press release specifies, “underscore[s] the lack of distinction between Hizballah’s political and military activities.” The deputy from Beirut is also accused of having threatened the bankers and their families whose establishment had frozen the accounts of Shiite members placed on the list of American sanctions.

The Treasury Department has reproached Mohammad Raad for “continu[ing] to prioritize Hizballah’s activities and hold Lebanon’s prosperity hostage.” This is one of the explanations that experts have found unconvincing in its wording and which they say does not explain the real reason for choosing these three new victims of American sanctions.

The direct financial impact on these three individuals is almost nonexistent. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah had already confirmed several months ago that no member of the Shiite party had a Lebanese bank account, an announcement that has been confirmed by a source close to the banking sector. But the political message behind this initiative is what is most important to remember.

By targeting, for the first time, the deputies and one of the most important figures of the Shiite Party’s security apparatus, in all likelihood, the United States is trying to tell Lebanon’s entire political class that it is time to take the United States’ war against Iran and its right arm, Hezbollah, seriously, and that the escalation will continue.

“The message that the Trump administration has just sent is not only addressed to Hezbollah, but also to the Lebanese state. These new sanctions are coming after a series of warnings given notably by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,” Hanine Ghaddar, a researcher at the Washington Institute, explained to L’Orient le Jour.* When he was last in Iran last March, the U.S. secretary of state clearly called out Hezbollah’s “criminality, terror, and threats,” and called on the Lebanese to “bravely move forward” against the Shiite party that puts Lebanon and the Lebanese people in danger.

“We’ll spend a lot of time talking with the Lebanese government about how we can help them disconnect from the threat that Iran and Hezbollah present,” the secretary of state told the press. The tone has been set. These new sanctions, which could be dissociated from measures taken by Donald Trump against Iran, could thus be an indirect way of calling the Lebanese government to order. “The margin of tolerance for the Lebanese exception represented by Hezbollah’s involvement in Lebanon’s institutional system is shrinking,” political analyst Sami Nader added.*

Severing Ties

The choice of Wafic Safa is also not insignificant. The official in charge of security within the party is also in charge of coordinating the Lebanese army with Hezbollah, as well as the latter’s coordination with the Free Patriotic Movement. According to Ghaddar, “the American government is thus issuing a warning to the Lebanese army, inviting it to sever its ties with the Shiite party.”* The same goes for the Free Patriotic Movement, which is also being called upon implicitly to reconsider its partnership with the Shiite party, Ghaddar finds.

Caught in a squeeze, the Lebanese government is once again being invited to show creativity in order, on the one hand, to protest what Speaker Berri called “an aggression against parliament and certainly an against Lebanon” and, on the other hand, cover its behind by saving, notably, gains from aid given to the Lebanese army. “The question is just how far this escalation can go and who will bear the brunt next,” adds Nader, who wonders if the next sanctions will affect the futures of other deputies, even the Hezbollah ministers, but also their allies, notably those within the Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement.*

It is also this hardening of American measures that Roger Melki fears. An economist and consultant, Melki believes that the new sanctions against the Shiite party’s deputies are not in themselves dramatic, but that they are possibly a warning sign of a coming escalation that will be more painful for Lebanon.

“The United States is trying everything it can to weaken Iran and Hezbollah by resorting to a politics of small steps and leaving the door open to future negotiations. They are hoping to pave the way by turning up the pressure,” explains Melki, who nonetheless confirms that he does not for the moment fear economic or political repercussions for Lebanon.*

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quote could not be independently verified.

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