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Washington Considers Sanctions against Hezbollah

A bill to cut off Hezbollah’s access to the international banking system is working its way through the U.S. Congress, with strong backing from the U.S. supporters of the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu.   After the Obama Administration cut off Congressional efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran last year due to concern that the law would sabotage the ongoing and promising P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Tehran, the present legislation was drawn up to impose indirect sanctions on Iran by hitting one of its allies—the Lebanese based Hezbollah.  The law seeks to punish any banks or government agencies that deal with Hezbollah.

Lebanese government officials are equally concerned that if the bill were to pass both Houses of Congress and be signed into law by President Obama, it would create havoc and badly damage the functioning of the Lebanese Central Bank.  Furthermore, Hezbollah’s March 7 bloc has a one-third stake in the new Lebanese government, and there are now sensitive negotiations underway to reach a consensus on a new Lebanese president.

The new legislation, called the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2014, has been introduced into the U.S. Senate by Senators Jeanne Shaheen, a liberal New Hampshire Democrat, and Marco Rubio, an ultra-conservative Florida Republican.  A bill with the identical title was earlier introduced into the House of Representatives by a bipartisan group of legislators, including the Chairman and Ranking Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Ed Royce and Democrat Elliot Engel.  In both cases, the bill sanctions any foreign financial institutions known to be facilitating all banking transactions of Hezbollah and demands full disclosure of all such transactions involving American banks.  The bills also target Al-Manar, the Lebanese television station and news agency linked to Hezbollah.  The Congressional action aims to cut off Al-Manar’s access to the international satellite broadcasting system by subjecting affiliated satellite networks to sanctions.

The bill also would designate Hezbollah a “major international narcotics trafficking organization” and a “major international criminal cartel,” opening much broader financial curbs and criminal prosecutions of any individuals or institutions engaged in financial transactions with the Lebanese group.

The Congressional actions were immediately endorsed by the two leading Israel Lobby groups in Washington—the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and J Street.

Little noted in the legislative hype against Hezbollah are two provisions:  All “authorized U.S. intelligence activities” are exempted from the restrictions—meaning that U.S. intelligence channels to Hezbollah can be maintained; and at any time that Hezbollah is removed from the State Department’s list of International Terrorist Organizations, the bill ceases to be enforced.

With continued Pentagon opposition to full-scale arming and supporting for the Syrian rebels, the Congress, in league with the Obama Administration, is falling back on the use of sanctions and financial warfare as the next-best tools available.

Washington-based Middle East specialists on Hezbollah are skeptical that the bills would pass Congress due to growing doubts about the value of sanctions. Such sweeping sanctions require almost universal agreement by the international community and could take years to put into place.

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