US targets inner circle of Hezbollah ally and 'Iran's man' in Lebanon

Exclusive: Parliament speaker Nabih Berri's links with Iran are focus of White House ire

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (R) in Beirut on March 22, 2019. / AFP / Haitham MUSSAWI
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The United States is considering sanctions against allies of Lebanon's parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri on account of his longstanding ties with Hezbollah and Iran.

The measures could embroil officials in Mr Berri's political party as well as its financial backers, according to sources with knowledge of the US plans. The potential action came under discussion during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visit to Beirut last month, triggering a scramble over the past week by Mr Berri to avoid American censure.

Two MPs and Mr Berri's spokesman are expected to land in Washington on Sunday for several days of talks with US officials aimed at minimising the scope of any sanctions.

Hezbollah, Iran's political and military proxy in Lebanon, holds three seats in Lebanon's cabinet and is allied in government with Mr Berri's Amal Movement, as well as the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun.

The US plan to hit Mr Berri's inner circle would be a significant escalation of the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran and its regional allies.

In remarks that appear close to turning into policy the threat Mr Pompeo made in Lebanon to “choke off the financing, the smuggling and the misuse of government positions and influence that feeds Iran and Hezbollah”, a senior White House official said Mr Berri's party and high-level associates were under scrutiny.

"The truth is that Hezbollah and Amal are one," the official told The National.

“This must stop. Nabih Berri continues to be Iran's man in Lebanon. He is Hezbollah's main line of political support. US economic targeting and sanctions will increase until Berri goes – or changes, which is unlikely. As long as Berri remains in power, the country will suffer.”

The official would not disclose when the sanctions would be announced but a source with knowledge of the discussions taking place in Washington said the Trump administration “would not be fooled by diplomatic posturing or deception” from Mr Berri, or people who spoke for him.

The US measures under consideration are designed to force Lebanese leaders to choose whether to put the country's sovereign interests above those of Iran, said the source, who is close to President Donald Trump's most senior advisers and US Treasury officials responsible for implementing sanctions policy.

Mr Berri's delegation to Washington will be headed by Yassine Jaber, a veteran Shiite MP who represents a district in southern Lebanon. Considered a liberal, he entered parliament in 1992, the same year that Mr Berri, a Shiite who led resistance against Israel's occupation in Lebanon, especially in the south, became speaker in the country's first post-war government. The pair have long been politically aligned.

Longtime Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri gives an interview with AFP in his home on Msaileh, south of the southern port city of Sidon, on May 8, 2018.
Lebanon's powerful parliament speaker said in an interview on May 8 that the general election's results vindicated a formula in which both the army and the Hezbollah militia guarantee the country's protection.
Polls held two days prior, the first in nine years, saw Hezbollah's allies in parliament garner enough seats to block any attempt by its political foes in parliament to make it disarm. / AFP PHOTO / Mahmoud ZAYYAT
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at his home on Msaileh, south of the southern port city of Sidon. AFP

Mr Jaber, who will be accompanied by MP Ibrahim Kanaan, from President Aoun's party, led a similar delegation to Washington in May 2017, when the US Congress was preparing legislation that could have placed sanctions on anyone who helped finance Hezbollah. Ali Hamdan, Mr Berri's media adviser, will complete the three-man delegation travelling to the US capital.

Lebanon's economy has been stagnating, with its property and banking sectors in trouble because of years of political uncertainty and infighting. Tourist numbers and business investment are down and further US financial sanctions stand to weaken its economic position further.

But Hezbollah's role, at Iran's behest, in backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad with fighters has enraged the US during Mr Trump's tenure, as it did during that of his predecessor Barack Obama. Hezbollah gained politically in last year's elections with its longstanding alliance to Amal and the FPM.

Mr Jaber's group will meet Marshall Billingslea, an assistant secretary of the US Treasury Department who leads its Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes.

The Lebanese team is also scheduled to hold talks with David Satterfield, the State Department's acting assistant secretary in the bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Mr Satterfield is a former ambassador to Lebanon.

Neither the State or Treasury departments would confirm the meetings.

When asked about potential measures affecting Lebanese persons, officials or entities, a State Department spokeswoman said it was not US policy “to preview sanctions actions”, but she echoed Mr Pompeo's remarks in Beirut, saying “everything at our disposal” would be used to counter anyone who aids Hezbollah or Iran.