Senior United States Treasury official Marshall Billingslea has delivered a stern message to Lebanese officials during a two-day visit to Beirut, warning that those who co-operate with Hezbollah will be targeted by sanctions.
During a meeting on Monday with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Mr Billingslea said that US sanctions could extend to any party suspected of providing “material” support to the Iranian-backed group.
Hezbollah has been designated a terrorist group by the US since 1997. This US administration ramped up pressure this summer by sanctioning two of the group’s MPs for the first time and a high-ranking security official.
President Michel Aoun struck a political alliance with Hezbollah in 2006. The Shiite party is a key political force in Lebanon and maintains a large paramilitary force that has fought both Syrian rebels and Israel.
However, the sanctions “will not target groups who are only tied to Hezbollah politically,” Mr Billingslea said, easing concern that the group’s political allies, including President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Berri’s Amal Movement, could be targeted.
On Thursday, Jamal Trust Bank announced that it would file for self-liquidation, three weeks after it was sanctioned by the US Treasury for providing financial services to Hezbollah.
Although JTB’s owner is Shiite, Mr Billingslea reaffirmed that the US was not going after members of the religion, but targeting Hezbollah. He told local journalists at the US embassy on Monday that it was important that JTB’s liquidation move forward so that clients could reclaim their funds while Hezbollah’s assets remain frozen.
Mr Billingslea also met the governor of the central bank, Riad Salameh, and the Lebanese Association of Banks.
“There is no intention at this stage to target Lebanese banks,” said Mr Billingslea, newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour said. Hezbollah “must stay clear from the Lebanese banking system”, the newspaper reported Mr Billingslea as saying.
With assets close to four times larger than Lebanon’s GDP, the Lebanese financial sector plays a crucial role in the local economy.
Speaking in Washington on September 13, Mr Billingslea boasted that Hezbollah was “feeling the squeeze”.
“Its fighters have been furloughed or assigned to reserves, where they earn far lower salaries. Its media employees have been laid off, and payment to families slashed,” he said.
Lebanese newspapers close to Hezbollah lambasted the US administration, accusing it of intervening in internal affairs.