Mounting US calls for sanctions over Lebanon's leadership vacuum

Crisis-hit country has been without a president and fully empowered cabinet since October

Barbara Leaf, US assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, has raised the possibility of sanctions on Lebanese officials over the delay in selecting a new president. Photo: CNP
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Pressure is mounting in the US for sanctions on Lebanese individuals involved in corruption as Lebanon grapples with a severe economic crisis with no president and a cabinet that has limited powers.

The leadership vacuum has prevented the country from implementing essential reforms to address the crisis which started in 2019 after decades of corruption and mismanagement.

Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, said on Wednesday during a Senate committee hearing that the Biden administration was considering sanctions if a new president is not elected soon.

Separately, two members of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee called on the administration to impose sanctions on individuals involved in corruption to “make clear to Lebanon’s political class that the status quo is not acceptable”.

Congressmen Mike McCaul and Gregory Meeks called for the swift election of a president, stressing that the “resulting political vacuum is exacerbating Lebanon's economic crisis, leading to hyperinflation and records level of poverty”.

“We also call on the administration to continue pressing for full accountability for the August 2020 Beirut port blast and support independent, international investigatory efforts into egregious fraud and malfeasance by the governor of Lebanon’s central bank,” they said in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday.

“We must not allow Lebanon to be held hostage by those looking to advance their own selfish interests.”

Lebanon's divided parliament has been unable to agree on a presidential candidate in 11 attempts to fill a post vacant since November. Under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, the post of president must be held by a Christian.

A bloc affiliated with Hezbollah, a powerful Iran-backed militia and political party, was seeking to install Marada Movement leader Suleiman Frangieh, who is known for his close ties with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Two other Christian parties – the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces, which leads an opposition camp against Hezbollah – have reportedly reached a consensus to endorse Jihad Azour, a former finance minister and a director at the International Monetary Fund, for the post.

Washington regularly imposes sanctions on individuals perceived as affiliated with Hezbollah, which it considers a terrorist organisation.

In 2020, the US Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on former energy minister Gebran Bassil for alleged involvement in corruption within the energy sector, which was believed to have facilitated Hezbollah operations.

In April, Ofac imposed sanctions on two Lebanese businessmen, brothers Raymond and Teddy Rahme, for “engaging in corrupt practices that contribute to the breakdown of the rule of law in Lebanon”, in a rare instance of sanctions not related to Hezbollah.

Updated: June 01, 2023, 10:05 AM