Congressional Republicans are preparing a package of new sanctions on the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah, an effort they told the Washington Free Beacon will cut off the group's access to key funding sources.
The new legislation, which the Free Beacon has obtained, will have far-reaching implications for financial institutions and senior government officials in Lebanon, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua—areas where Hezbollah has an active and well-funded presence. The legislation would designate key territories in Lebanon as sources of terror financing, a designation that will freeze Hezbollah-friendly banks out of the international financial system.
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The bill would enact the toughest Hezbollah sanctions Congress has ever proposed, said Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), chair of the House Republican Study Committee's Foreign Affairs and National Security Task Force. "By cutting off banks in areas under the terror group's control from the international financial system, this bill will go a long way towards drying up the Iranian terror proxy’s resources to conduct murderous attacks against the U.S. and our allies."
The legislation comes as U.S. aid to Lebanon has reemerged as a flashpoint after a massive explosion decimated the capital city of Beirut. While the United States and other western nations have committed aid dollars to help Lebanon rebuild, critics have warned that Hezbollah, which largely controls the Lebanese government, will likely steal much of the money.
While the legislation is unlikely to pass a Democratic-controlled House in a hotly contested election year, it showcases the GOP’s heightened concerns about Hezbollah and its deepening foothold in Latin America.
Dubbed the Hezbollah Money Laundering Prevention Act of 2020, the legislation would require the Treasury Department to determine whether certain areas of Lebanon qualify as jurisdictions of "primary money laundering concern." This designation would allow the U.S. government to implement wide-ranging sanctions on government officials and banks aiding Hezbollah.
The bill seeks a similar designation for the "tri-border area" between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, which serves as a primary hub for drug trafficking and criminal activity. The area has been a central breeding ground for Hezbollah activities over the years, with operatives using it to run the drugs and weapons that fund the group's terror activities. Hezbollah’s operations in Latin America have been a source of friction for some time, but the United States has done little to stem it.
The legislation would place additional sanctions on senior political figures in Lebanon, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua for their continued support of Hezbollah. Other measures would target "Hezbollah in Mexico, Venezuela, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, Panama, Cuba, Bolivia, or any other country in Latin America" found to be working with the terror group. If Congress passes the bill, it would mark the first time foreign political leaders are being designated for their ties to Hezbollah.
Wilson’s bill is cosponsored by 12 other GOP lawmakers.
The bill has received early support from Christians United for Israel (CUFI), one of America’s largest pro-Israel organizations. Through its lobbying arms, CUFI has advocated for greater sanctions on Hezbollah to help stifle the Iranian terror group's operations and increase security on Israel’s northern border, which runs up against Hezbollah-controlled territory in Lebanon.
"Wherever Hezbollah’s tentacles reach, the people suffer," CUFI Action Fund chairwoman Sandra Parker told the Free Beacon. "From Europe to Latin America, Hezbollah's illicit activities should be stymied, sanctioned, and condemned at every available opportunity. Rep. Wilson and all those who've signed on to this legislation should be commended for recognizing the problem and choosing to do something meaningful about it."
Tony Badran, a Lebanon expert and research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think-tank, said the bill represents "a strong rebuke to the U.S.'s incoherent Lebanon policy."
Badran, a frequent critic of what he sees as U.S. policies towards Lebanon that embolden Hezbollah's grip on the country, said new sanctions as outlined in the bill would go a long way in restricting Hezbollah's access to cash resources.
"The bill highlights and targets jurisdictions under Hezbollah control — where Hezbollah launders money, and also maintains arms depots and precision missile sites in civilian areas — even as current State Department initiatives, like the border demarcation talks between Lebanon and Israel, open the door to European investment in these jurisdictions, to Hezbollah’s benefit," Badran explained.
Sanctioning Lebanese leaders tied to Hezbollah also could mark a sea change in U.S. policy, which has largely centered on bolstering the Lebanese Armed Forces—a fighting force that critics view as under Hezbollah's thumb.
"The Lebanese government and its agencies, as recent sanctions have shown, work directly with and finance Hezbollah," Badran said. "By funding them, the U.S. is only helping Hezbollah."