The Cable

Lawmakers Target Lebanese Government Support for Hezbollah

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a veiled threat to Lebanon over Hezbollah’s role in government.

Hezbollah fighters gather to watch a televised speech by leader Hassan Nasrallah in 2008 (JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images).
Hezbollah fighters gather to watch a televised speech by leader Hassan Nasrallah in 2008 (JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images).

Republican and Democratic lawmakers launched a broadside against Hezbollah and the Lebanese government Tuesday, as they tried to rally support for new congressional sanctions targeting the group and its affiliates.

One of the bills — an update to the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act — aims to curb Hezbollah’s dealings with foreign financial institutions, as well as its fundraising from abroad. It also targets Lebanese officials affiliated with the group, which is part of the governing coalition. The other law targets the group for using civilians as “human shields, and for other purposes.”

“This legislation has a whole series of steps to try to close any last loopholes that remain for this criminal enterprise,” Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a briefing on Capitol Hill. “It labels them a criminal enterprise in a way that … gives us additional leverage.”

In a departure from previous rhetoric, Congress is taking direct aim at the Lebanese government, a major U.S. counterterrorism partner, for its continued cooperation with Hezbollah. In Lebanon, the group is an established political party, complete with ministers and members of parliament.

“I’ve had long conversations with the government of Lebanon on this, and with … [Prime Minister Saad] Hariri,” said Royce. “These conversations would be more impactful to me and my colleagues if we didn’t have an agent of Hezbollah sitting in a room when we have them,” he said — a reference to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who came to power with support from the group.

“This is one of the great misgivings I have about Lebanon,” Royce said.

The United States certainly has leverage over Lebanon. The Lebanese Army relies heavily on U.S. funding to operate, but in recent years, U.S. policymakers have voiced increasing concern over alleged cooperation between the armed forces and Hezbollah.

Similarly, the Lebanese financial system — a backbone of the country’s economy — is highly dependent on access to U.S. markets and the dollar. Lebanese banks have therefore been highly responsive to sanctions, fearing a loss of access.

Lebanese Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh made several trips to Washington over the summer in anticipation of the latest round of sanctions, in an attempt to persuade U.S. policymakers to avoid severely damaging the country’s economy.

Royce, a co-sponsor of the bill alongside Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the committee, is confident that the legislation will sail through both houses.

“Right now we’re putting a lot of pressure on the Senate. Eliot Engel and myself have the support lined up for our legislation on the House side. We think it will be quickly signed,” Royce said.

Photo credit: Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Rhys_Dubin

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