On his third visit to Washington as Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri has a tall order in trying to secure continued US support to Lebanon while holding back sanctions on Hezbollah and its allies that could impact the economically-precarious country.
Mr Hariri is there in a private capacity, accompanying his daughter to enrol in a Washington university, but he will still meet several Trump administration officials while there.
He was scheduled to meet undersecretary for political affairs David Hale late on Wednesday and then have a sit down with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday. He will also meet with Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker during the visit. The officials "look forward to discussing a broad range of bilateral and regional issues," a State Department official told The National.
US President Donald Trump, who met Mr Hariri in July 2017, is currently in New Jersey, the Congress is in recess, and National Security Advisor John Bolton is overseas.
The threat of sanctions looms large over the visit. On Monday, Mr Hariri met US Assistant Secretary of Treasury, Marshall Billingslea, who is seen as the architect in the Trump administration of the coordinated sanctions on Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Lebanon.
In recent months, Washington has increased its pressure on Hezbollah by sanctioning its security official Wafiq Safa and ranking parliamentarian Mohamad Raad in July, and threatening further action against Iran and its proxies across the region.
The US also flexed its muscles earlier this month with a veiled threat to sanction members of the party founded by Lebanese President Michel Aoun – a close ally of Syria and Hezbollah.
The warning came after clashes between US ally and leader of the Druze Walid Joumblatt and Mr Aoun's son in law and foreign minister Gebran Bassil, as well as his political associates.
Mr Aoun appeared to step in last week to cool the controversy that prevented Cabinet from meeting for over a month. Mr Joumblatt is himself expected to visit Washington in October.
Unless there is a major breakthrough in the meeting between Messrs Pompeo and Hariri, Washington is likely to impose fresh sanctions on Hezbollah in Lebanon and its allies inside and outside government as well as private institutions facilitating funding for the group, according to three US sources familiar with the Trump administration’s thinking.
On possible sanctions, the State Department official said, “While we do not have anything new to announce at this time, we will continue our effort to target individuals and entities that support, fund and facilitate Hezbollah destabilizing activities around the world.”
The likely fresh sanctions reflect the Trump administration's frustration with the acquiescence of its traditional allies to Hezbollah, Firas Maksad, a Lebanon policy watcher and adjunct professor at George Washington University, told The National.
“US officials point to specific requests made of the Lebanese government relating to Iran’s dominance in Lebanon, before and after the formation of the current cabinet, that remain unfulfilled,” he said, although he declined to say what the undisclosed requests had been.
The only debate within the US administration on the issue of sanctions is how much pressure to apply, he said. “More sanctions are coming.”
In Lebanon, allies of the prime minister – who has long been critical of the Iran-backed group but takes a pragmatic ‘dealmaker’ stance in government – point to the complexity of the situation and the limitations of state institutions in confronting Hezbollah.
A major concern for Mr Hariri and his allies is that US sanctions could have a huge impact on Lebanese banks, the currency and the wider economy – already on the verge of crisis.
Mr Hariri is likely to ask the US for understanding when it comes to pressuring Hezbollah, according to Fouad Siniora, a former prime minister and current head of the parliamentary bloc of Mr Hariri’s Future Movement.
Hezbollah, the only Lebanese party with its own militia, has been represented in Parliament since the first post-war elections of 1992 and in government since 2005. Hezbollah’s military prowess has significantly increased following its intervention in the Syrian war, with the group acquiring more sophisticated weaponry and missile capabilities from Iran.
Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, warned in June that if the US went to war with Iran, the whole Middle East would “erupt” and that his group would attack both Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Mr Hariri will probably raise these concerns with the US administration, Mr Siniora told The National. "One has to alert [the US] about the dangers of [a war]."