Lebanon leaders condemn US sanctions on Hezbollah lawmakers

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s president and parliament speaker decried on Wednesday new U.S. sanctions targeting two Hezbollah lawmakers, as the prime minister sought to reassure the public the fragile economy won’t be affected.

The country’s top leaders were reacting a day after the U.S. Treasury Department said it is targeting two Hezbollah lawmakers and a security official suspected of using their positions to further the aims of the Iran-backed group as well as bolster Tehran’s “malign activities.”

The new sanctions were the first time Washington targeted lawmakers currently seated in Lebanon’s parliament — a jab at the militant group’s growing political role which seemed to have struck a nerve at a time when the country is dealing with a major economic slump.

The widening dragnet also comes as the U.S. increases its pressure on Tehran, levying new sanctions on Iran and raising tensions across the region.

Hezbollah has been under increasing financial sanctions from the United States. But Treasury officials said the latest designation, naming lawmakers Mohammad Raad who leads the group’s parliamentary bloc and Amin Sherri, makes clear that there is no dividing line between Hezbollah’s political and militant wings.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said the U.S. decision to target lawmakers was regrettable, adding that his government will pursue the matter with American officials.

Aoun said the decision contradicts previous U.S. positions vouching for the commitment of Lebanon and its banking sector to international agreements combatting money laundering, funding terrorism and other criminal activities.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called the sanctions an aggression against the whole country and against Lebanese democracy. He called on the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union to take the necessary measures to deal with “the irrational behavior.” It is not clear what the union can do.

Both Berri and Aoun are Hezbollah allies.

The Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri, one of Hezbollah’s main local opponents, said the sanctions took a “new course” when they hit elected lawmakers but urged that the issue not be exaggerated to avoid aggravating already tense domestic relations.

“This will not affect parliament or the work that we do both in parliament and in the Council of Ministers,” Hariri said during a function in Beirut. “It is important that we preserve the banking sector and the Lebanese economy, and God willing, this crisis will pass sooner or later.”

Hezbollah and its allies won a majority in 2018 elections and the group has three Cabinet seats, the largest number it has ever controlled. The group, founded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in the 1980s, is among the most effective armed groups in the region and has fought several wars with neighboring Israel. Lebanon is still technically at war with Israel.

Hezbollah has also sent thousands of its fighters to Syria to fight alongside the troops of President Bashar Assad.

Lebanese groups are sharply divided over Hezbollah’s growing regional clout but the local rivals have worked together to preserve a delicately balanced political system. The sectarian-based arrangement has survived flare ups over policy decisions following a 1989 political deal that capped 15 years of civil war.

“The most important thing that we must work on at present is to secure the needs of the Lebanese citizens and provide them with a good economic situation because they are fed up of political rhetoric and slogans,” Hariri said.