Years of sanctions on Lebanese terror group Hezbollah have left the organization “in its worst financial shape in decades,” a top US treasury official told Congress on Wednesday.
Adam Szubin, considered an architect of US sanctions against Iran, said the US and other countries had clamped down on the Shiite group, putting it in deep financial straits.
“After many years of sanctions targeting Hezbollah, today the group is in its worst financial shape in decades. And I can assure you that, alongside our international partners, we are working hard to put them out of business,” Szubin, the US Treasury Department’s Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, told lawmakers at a hearing on the Iran nuclear deal.
Critics had charged the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions as part of the deal would free up money for Iran to use to sponsor terror abroad, particularly with Hezbollah, which it funds to the tune of $200 million a year, according to a recent US Homeland Security report.
The group has been bogged down in Syria, helping Iran prop up the regime of embattled President Bashar Assad, but has also continued to threaten Israel, with which it fought a bloody war in 2006.
Noting that Iran “supplies funding and weapons to Hezbollah,” Szubin affirmed that the Iran deal “has no impact on our efforts on this front.”
“In late January, we sanctioned a major Hezbollah financial support network, which was laundering criminal proceeds to support Hezbollah’s terrorism and destabilizing activity. And just last month, we published new sanctions regulations to implement the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 – a law which gives us yet more tools in our campaign to destroy Hezbollah’s financial networks,” he told a House Foreign Affairs Committee, according to a transcript posted Wednesday on the Treasury Department’s website.
In February, an international sting operation netted members of a European Hezbollah cell accused of using millions of dollars from cocaine sales in South America to buy weapons for Syria, US officials said.
Among those arrested in the raid were leaders of the Lebanon-based terror group’s European arm, accused by Washington of laundering Hezbollah funds through a Lebanese front company.
The international probe uncovered a network of couriers who collected and transported millions of euros in drug proceeds from Europe to the Middle East. Large amounts passed through Lebanon en route to terror organizations such as Hezbollah.
“Ultimately, we are clear-eyed about the nature of the non-nuclear threats posed by Iran. We will continue to combat these threats using a range of tools at our disposal – including by enforcing existing sanctions, and by designating new targets when appropriate.”
Hezbollah has been squeezed by US sanctions, which officials in the Lebanese Shiite group have warned could have a dramatic impact on the Lebanese economy.
On May 12, Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc said US sanctions on banks that knowingly do business with it could threaten Lebanon’s financial sector, hinting that supporters may withdraw their money from local banks.
The bloc, known as Loyalty to the Resistance, criticized Lebanon’s central bank for saying it would abide by the US law, which came into effect last month and which the lawmakers said violates Lebanon’s sovereignty.
The statement came after a Cabinet meeting that same day in which officials discussed a decision by Lebanese banks to shut down the accounts of at least two Hezbollah lawmakers, an official who attended the meeting told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the meeting with the media.
The official said Cabinet members are concerned the law could affect Hezbollah’s large network of social, educational and health organizations, which regularly deal with the government and provide services to needy Lebanese, not just supporters.
Lebanon has a national unity government that includes Hezbollah, which has two Cabinet seats. Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, has an armed wing that is stronger than the Lebanese national army.
On Wednesday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech that some in Lebanon were conspiring against the group, possibly referencing the sanctions.
“Our strength in Lebanon is being targeted and the entire axis of resistance in this nation is being targeted,” he said.
Lebanon’s central bank governor has said it will abide by the restrictions in the new US law, which was signed into law by US President Barack Obama in December.
The law says Washington will target those “knowingly facilitating a significant transaction or transactions for” Hezbollah or any individual, business or institution linked to the group.
Those under sanctions include Nasrallah and top commander Mustafa Badreddine — who was killed in mid-May in an explosion in Syria — as well as some businessmen. The list also includes the group’s Al-Manar TV and Al-Nour Radio.
Nasrallah said last year that his group won’t be affected by the law because it doesn’t deal with Lebanese or foreign banks.
When asked last month whether banks dealing with Hezbollah Cabinet ministers or legislators who get paid by the state would be affected, Lebanese central bank Governor Riad Salameh told The Associated Press that the law does not mention salaries.
Lebanese officials and lawyers have said the impact of the law on the country’s economy remains unclear.