Taking aim at Iran, US hits Hezbollah with new sanctions

AP— Taking aim at Iran’s global footprint, the Trump administration on Friday hit six people and seven businesses linked to Hezbollah with terror sanctions, calling it “the first wave” in a pressure campaign that will escalate throughout the year.

The sanctions aim to squeeze Hezbollah financier Adham Tabaja, who is already designated by the U.S. as a global terrorist, by freezing out a network of companies in Lebanon, Ghana, Liberia and elsewhere. The Trump administration said companies and their executives act on Tabaja’s behalf, forming “conduits” of funding for the Lebanon-based militant group.

“We will be relentless in identifying, exposing, and dismantling Hezbollah’s financial support networks globally,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

The Trump administration has made it a top priority to undermine Iran’s ability to stoke unrest and spread its influence throughout the region. Senior Trump administration officials said the U.S. estimates Iran sends Hezbollah about $700 million per year, arguing that Hezbollah has become the Iranian government’s primary tool to project its power in the Arabic-speaking world.

Formed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 1982 to fight Israel’s invasion of Beirut, Hezbollah has morphed into a powerful political player in Lebanon, running its own media and communication channels and providing government-like services to followers in its strongholds. The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization and has hit the group with sanctions before.

Yet in targeting Hezbollah so forcefully, the Trump administration has raised difficult questions about how the U.S. can justify continued close ties to Lebanon. Hezbollah members are part of the Mediterranean nation’s coalition government, Lebanon’s president is a Hezbollah ally, and Israel insists the Lebanese military — which the U.S. actively supports — is inseparably intertwined with Hezbollah.

And though European officials have argued Hezbollah’s military and political wings are separate, Trump officials said the U.S. rejects that argument and believes there’s no meaningful distinction between the two.

“This is the central contradiction at the heart of the Lebanon and Hezbollah policy,” said Tony Badran, who researches Lebanon and Hezbollah at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He said past investigations had also exposed complicity or involvement by parts of Lebanon’s government in Hezbollah’s money-laundering operations.

More recently, the U.S. has grown concerned about the group’s involvement in other conflicts, including in neighboring Syria, where it’s sent thousands of fighters to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad. U.S. officials said Hezbollah is also helping train and advice Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen who are being pummeled by a Saudi-led coalition supported by the United States.

Trump officials said more sanctions would be coming against Hezbollah, the results of an investigation into the group that President Donald Trump ordered last summer. They said there were “dozens” more financial networks linked to Hezbollah that could be targeted. The officials weren’t authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The first wave of penalties target Al-Inmaa Engineering Contracting, a company run by Tabaja and based in Hezbollah’s stronghold south of Beirut. The construction company is mostly active in predominantly Shiite areas in Lebanon such as Beirut’s southern suburbs and the southern market town of Nabatiyeh.

“We will no longer allow corrupt Hezbollah and other Iranian regime cronies to hide their crimes behind front companies,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Twitter.

The other companies named Friday are mostly based in Africa, where tens of thousands of Lebanese — many of them Shiites — have been living for decades. Most of the individuals targeted had not been publicly known to be Hezbollah financiers and are not prominent names in Lebanon.

The sanctions freeze any assets in the U.S. and bar Americans from dealing with those being sanctioned. Although Hezbollah associates are unlikely to have significant assets in the United States, officials said the U.S. has specific information about the banking networks used by Tabaja in Africa and elsewhere.

One official said the U.S. was coordinating with the governments in those countries to ensure that “Tabaja has a very bad day today in terms of his finances.”

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.