From Beirut to Bogota: U.S. Congress goes after Hezbollah

Joyce Karam

By: Joyce Karam

There is a very high chance that the United States’ 113th Congress will go down as the least productive in American history, and the most marred with partisan divisions between Democrats and Republicans. But, this does not seem to be the case when it comes to Hezbollah, with the House of Representatives voting this week 404-0 on a sanctions bill targeting the worldwide operation of the Lebanese party.

The unanimously -passed House Resolution 4411 entitled “The Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act” is designed to tighten the financial screws on the organization, and restrict its access to the global market. In short, Congress is attempting to follow the money, and track Hezbollah’s sophisticated web of funding stretching from the Middle East to Africa to Latin America.

Replica of Iran sanctions

H.R. 4411 is almost a replica of the “Iran Sanctions Act” (ISA), passed by Congress in 1996 and renamed in 2006. The ISA slapped economic measures on Tehran, which U.S. officials attribute to bringing the Iranian government to the table to negotiate the future of its nuclear program. Whether the goal with Hezbollah is to bring it to the table is debatable, but weakening the financial infrastructure of the party and cutting its global tentacles is one objective I can see.

H.R. 4411 will also subject European banks to more inspection if they are being used to transfer money to Hezbollah

Joyce Karam

The Hezbollah resolution is now at the Senate, where it is also expected to pass before it reaches U.S. President Barack Obama’s desk to be signed into law. A senior U.S. official commenting on the unanimous vote by the House, told Al Arabiya News that “there is lot of support to try to limit and restrict Hezbollah’s financial networks.” He sees it as an “appropriate” step, given “Hezbollah’s designation as a terrorist group and its ongoing activities in Syria and Lebanon and more broadly.”

It is the evolved threat of Hezbollah beyond Lebanon, its military involvement in the Syrian war, its suspected role in terror attacks and plans in Bulgaria and Cyprus, and its use of sophisticated weapons including drones over both Syria and Israel according to the Treasury Department, that is driving the support from lawmakers. The resolution, if enacted into law, would direct the U.S. Treasury Department to restrict all payments to Hezbollah activities, as well as target its foreign assets and satellite Television station Al-Manar. The bill also allows the U.S president to add Hezbollah to the Foreign Narcotics organizations list, clearing the way for more targeted sanctions.

Also unique to H.R. 4411 is the lobby groups advocating the bill. They include, according to knowledgeable sources I have spoken with, groups from the Syrian opposition disappointed with Hezbollah’s involvement in their home country, Lebanese groups allied with March14 who are at odds with Hezbollah and pro-Israel groups, namely The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) according to my sources.

Scope and impact of the bill

While H.R.4411 puts the Lebanese banks on alert, its reach will be not limited to Lebanon. Bankers in Lebanon and the country’s central bank have been watching the deliberations on Capitol Hill with a high degree of caution, fearing a direct impact on the Lebanese economy. As reported by Al-Monitor, however, the new version of the bill spares Lebanon’s central bank by eliminating “a separate section on central banks that required Treasury to identify any found to be supporting Hezbollah.”

There is already high level communications between U.S. officials and Lebanese bankers on the bill it seems, and Washington sees an improved performance by the banking sector in Beirut to restrict funding to Hezbollah. The Lebanese Canadian Bank agreed to pay $102 million last summer to settle its legal woes with U.S. authorities. The bank was blacklisted for transferring more than $300 million to Hezbollah in money allegedly generated from drug trafficking and money laundering.

In fact, it is this area that H.R. 4411 will bring more scrutiny. A 2009 report by RAND corporation estimated that Hezbollah makes around $20 million dollars a year in drug trafficking in Latin America. The report focused on Hezbollah’s activities in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay. Funding from such activities is becoming, in U.S. estimates, more vital for the group given the sanctions’ toll on Iran’s economy and the wars in Syria and Iraq. U.S. officials had estimated in the past that Tehran has an annual budget for Hezbollah that goes up to $200 million.

H.R. 4411 will also subject European banks to more inspection if they are being used to transfer money to Hezbollah. Many supporters of the party are said to live across Europe, where it is allowed to operate openly without being designated as a terrorist organization. A New York Times report highlighted Germany as a “center of activity” for Hezbollah, and former U.S. officials voiced concerns about fundraising activities in German mosques for the party.

As the new bill makes its way to the Senate, the predominant strategy is a concerted U.S. effort to weaken Hezbollah. The party’s global funding operation, its combat role in Syria, and the improvement of its weaponry following the 2006 war, are dictating a more robust activity from Washington to contain its transnational activities.

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

 
 
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