BEIRUT (AP) — Growing US pressure on Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, including a new wave of sanctions targeting its top leadership, may hamper the formation of a new government that caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri was overwhelmingly chosen to form on Thursday.
Hariri’s aim is to quickly recreate a national unity government that incorporates Hezbollah members to implement reforms and deal with a crippling and growing national debt, but might come under increasing pressure from the US and its Arab allies to shun the group which says it wants to play a bigger role in the future Cabinet.
After a day of consultations between President Michel Aoun and the country’s 128 legislators, 111 named Hariri as their choice to form a new Cabinet while the rest, including Hezbollah’s bloc and some of its allies, did not give a name.
Hariri’s nomination comes after this month’s parliament elections in which Hezbollah, along with its political allies, significantly increased their presence in the legislature.
“The least we should expect is huge complications over the formation of the Cabinet,” said Nabil Bou Monsef, deputy editor-in-chief of the leading daily An-Nahar. He said Lebanon is again in the heart of the US-Iran conflict and this will lead to “complications over the government that will be caused by conditions and counter conditions.”
Despite soaring regional tensions, Hariri appeared optimistic after he was named to form the Cabinet.
“I extend my hand to all political elements. We should work together to achieve what the Lebanese people are looking for,” Hariri told reporters.
Asked if there will be a veto on Hezbollah’s participation, Hariri said “I only heard that from the Lebanese media. This is the first time I hear it.” Hariri added: “I am open to all elements and never closed the door in front of anyone.”
Hezbollah, which has 13 seats in the 128-member legislature, did not name its own candidate for the premiership as it has done in the past — signaling it will likely go along with Hariri’s re-appointment despite tense relations between the Iran-allied Shiite group and the Western-backed Hariri.
The US, Israel and several Gulf states consider Hezbollah a terror group, though European countries distinguish between the organization’s political and militant wings.
A UN-backed tribunal has indicted five Hezbollah members in the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father and former premier Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah denies the charges.
“We have confirmed our readiness to take part in the next government and to deal positively with whomever is named by the majority,” Mohammed Raad, who heads Hezbollah’s bloc in parliament, said after meeting Aoun.
Naming Hariri came amid concerns in Lebanon that a new wave of sanctions by the US and its Arab allies against Hezbollah would delay Hariri’s formation of the Cabinet.
The increasing pressures by the US and its Arab allies on Hezbollah come amid rising tensions in the region following President Donald Trump’s decision earlier this month to withdraw Washington from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the group’s gains in the May 6 parliamentary elections.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tehran should end its support of Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful arm in the region.
“We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and crush them,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo in testimony Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was asked if the Lebanese government is now indistinguishable from Hezbollah and whether the US should continue to provide assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces.
“I don’t believe that it is, although we are reviewing that, to be sure, to make sure that the actions that we take, the funding that is provided, is provided appropriately and consistent with the law,” he said.
The US has been imposing sanctions on the group for decades. However, a new wave last week appears to be more serious about targeting the group’s top leadership as well as businessmen and companies that Washington says are funding the organization that is heavily involved in Syria’s seven-year war, providing strong military backing for President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The sanctions reflect the battle between the US and its allies against Iran, which has expanded its influence in the Arab world in recent years. Tehran enjoys wide influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and last year opened a land corridor from its border through Iraq and Syria all the way to the Mediterranean.
On May 16, the US and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council that includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman imposed sanctions on 10 top Hezbollah officials including its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, his deputy Naim Kassem and top officials Hashem Safieddine, Ibrahim Aim al-Sayyed, Hussein Khalil and Mohammed Yazbek.
A day later, Washington imposed sanctions on businessman Mohammed Ibrahim Bazzi and Hezbollah’s representative in Iran, Abdullah Safieddine, as well as several companies in Europe, Africa and Lebanon, saying they launder money for the group.
“This action highlights the duplicity and disgraceful conduct of Hezbollah and its Iranian backers. Despite Nasrallah’s claims, Hezbollah uses financiers like Bazzi who are tied to drug dealers, and who launder money to fund terrorism,” said Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin in a statement.
“The savage and depraved acts of one of Hezbollah’s most prominent financiers cannot be tolerated. This Administration will expose and disrupt Hezbollah and Iranian terror networks at every turn, including those with ties to the Central Bank of Iran,” he said.
Hariri said earlier this week that the sanctions will not hinder the formation of a new Cabinet but on the contrary might accelerate it.
On Sunday, outgoing cabinet minister Marwan Hamadeh, a Hariri ally, said that sanctions on Hezbollah would “hamper the formation of the government.”
Senior Hezbollah official Nabil Kaouk said Saudi Arabia does not want his group to be represented in the government, adding that the coming days will prove that the kingdom “is weak and cannot prevent Hezbollah from holding important portfolios in the government.”
A Saudi envoy said during a visit to Lebanon over the weekend that the kingdom does not interfere in the country’s internal politics and supports the stability of Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s allies are strongly standing behind the organization’s representation in the new Cabinet.
“The party should be represented in the new government. This is not negotiable,” said Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement that has the largest bloc in parliament, about Hezbollah.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.