The United States slapped sanctions on Friday on Lebanon’s parliamentarian and head of the Free Patriotic Movement Gebran Bassil, accusing him of corruption, accepting bribery and acting in "partnership with Hezbollah".
The US Treasury Department sanctioned Mr Bassil under the Magnitsky Act.
Mr Bassil, the son-in-law of Lebanon's President Michel Aoun, is also a former foreign minister.
The US deems Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which is a powerful political presence in Lebanon, to be a terrorist group. It has ratcheted up pressure on the group over the past month by announcing a $10 million reward for information on Hezbollah's financial network and placing two prominent members under sanctions.
The new sanctions on Mr Bassil come at a critical point for Lebanon as it tries to form a new government under former prime minister Saad Hariri.
Creating a government of technocrats is a key condition for receiving foreign assistance to resolve Lebanon's economic crisis, but requires the support of all major parties under the country's sectarian power-sharing system.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Mr Bassil as notoriously corrupt. “Throughout his government career, Bassil has become notorious for corruption and has been linked to the purchase of influence within Lebanese political circles,” Mr Pompeo said.
Some of these actions, he added, occurred while Mr Bassil was Minister of Energy and “involved in approving several projects that would have steered Lebanese government funds to individuals close to him through a group of front companies”.
Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker told The National that the timing of targeting Mr Bassil is not linked to the government formation in Lebanon but expected a strong impact.
“These designations have an impact, they are stigmatising, they are isolating and they send a clear message.”
Mr Bassil is the most senior figure around the Lebanese President Michel Aoun that the US had targeted. Mr Schenker stressed this is not aimed at the Lebanese Christian community, which makes up the majority of Mr Bassil’s party.
“Some of this has been in the works earlier; they take a while to prepare, they take time to prepare, they go through a review process,” Mr Schenker said.
“It can’t be business as usual,” he added in reference to the anti-corruption protests that have been ongoing in Beirut for over a year.
Mr Schenker acknowledged that Bassil is hardly alone to benefit from corruption in Lebanon but said he “represents the most egregious example”.
Asked if a change in the US administration in January would affect these sanctions, Mr Schenker said there will be continuity in US policy on Lebanon, even if Joe Biden won the election.
“Regardless what administration is sitting in the White House, there is continuity to US policy in support of reform, transparency and anti-corruption whether in Lebanon… I am confident that whether this administration or should it be a Biden administration, there will be continuity in adhering to those principles.”
Mr Schenker was less optimistic on the issue of maritime talks between Lebanon and Israel which the US is mediating. “I don’t anticipate a breakthrough any time soon,” he said.
The sanctions targeting Bassil are under Magnitsky Act that involve corruption and human rights violations.
Hanin Ghaddar, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, saw the Magnitsky reference as significant. "It will be very difficult to undo these sanctions because they are under Magnitsky," Ms Ghaddar told The National.
“It sends a very strong message to the Lebanese people who are protesting corruption and to others in the country who will now think twice now before assisting or allying themselves with Hezbollah for financial benefits,” she said.
Firad Maksad, a professor at George Washington University, saw long-lasting effects for the sanctions in possibly blocking Mr Bassil’s path to become president in 2022. “This designation will shape Lebanon’s political landscape for years to come, probably dashing Mr Bassil’s hopes of succeeding his father-in-law as president,” Mr Maksad said.
"Over time, however, it carries the potential of eroding Mr Bassil political base, thereby diminishing his value to Hezbollah," the expert told The National.
Lebanon ranks 138th out of 180 nations under the Transparency International corruption index. The Magnitsky Act was passed by Congress in 2012 and signed into law by former US president Barack Obama. It’s been used to target corrupt figures in countries including Congo, Cambodia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Russia, China, Dominican Republic and Uganda.
A US official explained to The National that a Magnitsky Act designation will bar those targeted from traveling to the United States. Mr Bassil has visited the US annually for diplomatic meetings and gatherings with his supporters.
“Individuals designated under the Global Magnitsky sanctions program are subject to visa restrictions under Presidential Proclamation 8693,” the official said on condition on anonymity.
Because Mr Bassil was also designated under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, he will also be barred from entering US soil.