Obama signs Hezbollah sanctions bill into law

White House welcomes legislation, which some hope will limit group’s cash windfall after Iran sanctions are lifted

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

File: Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah delivers a speech shown on a screen during a rally in the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, May 24, 2015.  (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)
File: Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah delivers a speech shown on a screen during a rally in the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, May 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama signed into law Friday afternoon legislation designed to tighten sanctions against the Iran-backed Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror organization.

The legislation, formally titled the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015, will impose tougher sanctions on banks that knowingly do business with the organization, which has launched attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets, and provides critical support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest praised the law Friday afternoon, describing it as a “strong, bipartisan bill” that “intensifies pressure against the Hezbollah terrorist organization and provides the Administration additional tools with which to target Hezbollah’s financial lifeblood.”

“We continue to work with Congress in a bipartisan way to ensure that we maximize the tools available to us to thwart Hezbollah’s network at every turn, and we look forward to working together as we implement these new authorities,” Earnest continued. “The US government has made significant progress and will continue to further disrupt Hezbollah’s terrorist capabilities by targeting the group’s financial support infrastructure.”

Earnest stressed that the administration is “committed to continuing to take strong action, such as imposing sanctions, to counter the activities of Hezbollah operatives and supporters, wherever they are located.”

The law reached the president’s desk Friday after the House of Representatives voted unanimously in favor of the bipartisan legislation on Wednesday. The Senate’s legislation also passed unanimously in late November.

Similar to previous sanctions legislation directed against Iran prior to the passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in summer of 2015, this law directs the president to enact regulations against banks or other financial institutions that do business with Hezbollah. The United States has long included Hezbollah on its list of terror organizations.

The new law also targets the organization’s satellite television station, al-Manar, by identifying those telecommunications companies that air the Lebanon-based channel.

In addition to aspiring to limit satellite access for al-Manar, the legislation also requires regular reports to Congress on Hezbollah’s ancillary operations, including drug trafficking, transnational crime, and involvement with other international organizations as far afield as South America and Asia. The administration will also be required to list countries that have proven hospitable to the Iranian-backed organization, whether through offering support or allowing them to maintain logistical bases.

Hezbullah has returned to the attention of Washington due to its close association with Iran, as well as its critical role in the Syrian civil war, where it has deployed thousands of fighters to support Assad’s Ba’athist rule.

Speaking earlier this week about Hezbollah, Earnest noted that “everybody in the United States Congress, Democrat and Republican, recognizes the threat that that terrorist organization poses to our interests at least in the region and the destabilizing impact that they continue to have, including in places like Syria.”

Congressional critics of the Iran nuclear deal have warned for months that when sanctions are lifted from Iran, a move that may come as early as next month, the Lebanese organization could receive a major financial windfall from Iran’s newfound wealth.

But by forcing banks to choose whether they would rather do business with Hezbollah or with the United States, this new legislation could limit some of the impact of any financial gain.

“Under President Obama’s nuclear deal, Iran will soon hit a jackpot worth tens of billions of dollars. Even the president admits this ‘windfall’ of cash will go to activities and groups, including its main terror proxy Hezbollah, that pose ‘a threat to us, and a threat to our allies,” warned Rep. Ed Royce, one of the law’s original authors.

“This bill cracks down on Hezbollah’s fundraising efforts, its operations in Syria, and its efforts to carry out hostilities against the United States and our ally Israel,” he explained.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) welcomed the legislation, which was sponsored in the Senate by Senators Marco Rubio and Jeanne Shaheen, and in the House of Representatives by Congressmen Royce and Eliot Engel.

Arguing that Hezbollah “poses a direct threat to American and Israeli security” and “has killed more Americans than any terrorist group other than al-Qaeda,” AIPAC commended Congress for its bipartisan effort in passing the legislation.

“We cannot afford to jeopardize our national security by letting Iran’s leading terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, continue to pose a direct threat to us and our allies including Israel,” Rubio said in November. “It is time for us to reveal the expansiveness of its dangerous network, and guarantee that our government is focused on eliminating this terrorist group.”

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