From selling drugs to profiting from a pig farm, Lebanese Hezbollah’s hypocrisy knows no bounds – a political party with a military army that does the bidding of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
That was the description of the group by Trump administration officials who announced new sanctions Friday – little noticed during the brouhaha over the Nunes memo. The sanctions are meant to delay the flow of illicit cash to Hezbollah’s coffers, and frustrate its support of Syrian leader Bashar al Assad, as the group fights alongside Iranian volunteers at the behest of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The group didn’t start out that way. Lebanese Hezbollah is a political party with a military wing, founded in the 1980s to fight Israel when it invaded Beirut. But it became America’s main terrorist target, for a time, when it carried out the 1983 bombings in Beirut that killed 241 Americans and 58 Frenchmen. That earned it the terrorist label, and sanctions that have ebbed and flowed with each American administration’s interest and attention span.
The Trump administration has put Lebanese Hezbollah back on center stage, as a vehicle by which to hit nemesis Iran.
Trump administration officials said this would be the first in a wave of sanctions against the group. They told a small group of reporters Friday that this will reverse the softly-softly approach Obama administration, which they said put sealing a nuclear deal with Tehran ahead of combating the malign behavior of its proxies.
Speaking anonymously as a condition of the briefing, the two senior officials said they’ve been working with countries across the Middle East and west Africa to make the sanctions bite.
But Obama veterans of past anti-Hezbollah campaigns say Team Trump has so far failed to draw together the combined coalition needed to truly put the squeeze on the group by including Europe, and China. European leaders especially are wary of joining the campaign, because of President Donald Trump’s repeated warnings that he may withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, aka the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The European Union has in the past sanctioned Hezbollah’s military wing, but not its political wing, which Trump officials call an artificial distinction that has helped enable the group’s economic survival.
Those involved in bringing about that Iran deal about say it was the tightening latticework of international sanctions, plus suspended or limited trade imposed not just by Washington but by Europe, and eventually China and Russia, that brought Iran to the table – a combined front they are not yet seeing in the fight Team Trump is picking now with Tehran, or Hezbollah.
European officials gripe that Trump administration threats already have robbed Iran of an economic windfall that was supposed to follow the Iran deal and reward its people with more jobs, and social benefits – and also provide a political reward to those less-hardline Iranian officials who pushed through the compromise against the protestations of those who control the state security apparatus. So there is no one within Tehran with the political capital to argue against the adventurism of Iranian proxies Hezbollah in Syria, or the Houthi rebels prosecuting a civil war with Iran’s help in Yemen.
Those European officials fear the Trump White House will give Iran the excuse to walk away from the deal – and strengthen Iran’s more extreme hard liners’ position with the expanding cascade of sanctions, that has started with U.S. unilateral sanctions against senior Iranian officials and now expanded to those who enact their will in foreign wars.
That helps explain why this latest round of sanctions against Iranian proxy Hezbollah is unilateral, as opposed to the economic noose the Obama administration slowly built around Iran. So these sanctions, against six individuals and seven companies you’ve probably never heard of, will likely frustrate the group that fights on behalf of Iran in Syria, but barely slow the group down.
The Trump officials say sanctions passed so far against senior Iranian military leaders have “disrupted” a “number of behaviors,” though they offered no details and the public protestations over Iran’s support of Houthi missile launches at Saudi Arabia argue against that, to name just one example of continued Iranian “bad behavior.”
But the sanctions will please a president with a notoriously short attention span – assuring him that something is being done about Iran via Hezbollah, which has senior Trump officials say has contributed 5,000 troops to the fight in Syria on behalf of Assad and Iran.
And the sanctions will please those nameless, faceless government officials at the Treasury Department and the intelligence community who labor for days, weeks and months – no matter who is in the White House – to map out the network of Hezbollah’s criminal malfeasance – an indeterminate amount of money earned from a ring of illicit industries, that adds to the $700 million provided annually by Iran.
Those intelligence warriors – some in basement cubicles and some on far-off battlefields — are always hunting for targets, and presenting opportunities to put the hurt on a designated terrorist group like Hezbollah to U.S. policymakers.
Then those recommendations go to a high-level White House meeting where putting the hurt on the network sometimes takes a backseat to diplomatic outreach.
In the Obama administration, the State Department had greater sway and a bigger prize in the offing – the Iran nuclear deal – that seemed to outweigh the temporary accounting problem sanctions would present to an Iranian proxy group. Obama officials thought they had the chance before them to not only delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program by years, but perhaps strengthen the political power of the side that wants to talk, not fight.
There was still some trust and some hope that the leaders in Tehran would deliver a measure of stability or at least noninterference throughout the greater region, in return of the economic rewards that were supposed to accompany the JCPOA.
The Trump administration doesn’t seem to believe that. They say Tehran’s actions since signing the JCPOA prove they’ll take what they can get, give nothing in return, and keep taking – that all Tehran and its proxies respect is a biblical eye for eye that starts with hitting them and their associates in their bank balance. Maybe a Democratic administration would be similarly frustrated and disappointed right now.
At least sanctions are a preferable first move vice military strikes, and they send a signal that the U.S. is both watching, and acting.
Kimberly Dozier is executive editor of The Cipher Brief.