A top Trump administration official this week said the United States see a role for the Iranian-backed terror organization Hezbollah in political discussions about the future of Lebanon, a decision that is raising concerns about internal divisions inside the Trump administration, according to recent statements and sources close to the administration who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in remarks during a trip through the Middle East this week, said the United States recognizes Hezbollah is part of the political process in Lebanon as global leaders gather to discuss the Middle Eastern country's future.
Despite the terrorist group's unhelpful influence, Tillerson said "we also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon."
Tillerson's remarks raised eyebrows in Washington, D.C., where some foreign policy officials questioned how the United States would hold diplomatic discussions with Hezbollah as the Trump administration also works to dismantle the group and crush its financial networks.
The comments starkly contradict efforts by the U.S. Treasury Department, which declared earlier this month that Hezbollah has no legitimate role to play in governance of Lebanon or other Arab countries Iran is seeking to destabilize.
Some officials remain concerned that treating Hezbollah as a legitimate actor in Lebanon—where it has amassed thousands of Iranian-built missiles on Israel's northern border—will provide legitimacy to the terror group and make it even more difficult for the Trump administration to target it with sanctions.
Speaking in Jordan on Wednesday, ahead of his travel to Beirut, Tillerson told reporters that Hezbollah must be part of any political process discussing Lebanon's future following the resignation of the country's prime minister, who disclosed upon his resignation that Hezbollah has assumed de facto control of the nation.
"We support a free, democratic Lebanon free of influence of others, and we know that Lebanese Hezbollah is influenced by Iran," Tillerson said. "This is influence that we think is unhelpful in Lebanon's long-term future."
However, "we also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon," Tillerson said. "I think Lebanon is taking positive steps with their law on disassociation that was passed last year to send a signal as to their view that they do not want to see any of Lebanese Hezbollah involved in foreign conflicts and have asked that they bring all of their people back from the conflict in Yemen."
Though Tillerson subsequently gave a speech that seemed to walk back his previous comments, his initial remarks drew criticism, where some foreign policy analysts accused him of boosting and legitimizing Hezbollah's role.
Asked on Thursday afternoon to clarify Tillerson's remarks, a State Department official told the Free Beacon that while Hezbollah must be part of the political process regarding Lebanon's future, the administration still considers it a terrorist organization.
"No, absolutely not," a State Department officials said in response to questions about whether the administration sees a future for Hezbollah in Lebanon. "As the secretary said this morning in his press avail with Prime Minister Hariri in Beirut, 'The United States has considered Hezbollah a terrorist organization for more than two decades.'"
The latest comments by Tillerson could signal internal disagreement in the Trump administration about how to deal with Hezbollah in Lebanon. As the State Department seeks to bring it into the political process, the Treasury Department has amped up efforts to sanction the terror group and dismantle its financial networks.
"Hezbollah is a terrorist organization responsible for the death of hundreds of Americans, "Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said in a statement earlier this month announcing tough new sanctions on Hezbollah.
"It is also Iran's primary proxy used to undermine legitimate Arab governments across the Middle East. The administration is determined to expose and disrupt Hezbollah's networks, including those across the Middle East and West Africa, used to fund their illicit operations," Mnuchin said. "The Treasury Department will continue to sever Hezbollah from the international financial system, and we will be relentless in identifying, exposing, and dismantling Hezbollah's financial support networks globally."
Asked about the State Department's clarification, an Iran policy expert who has worked closely with the Trump administration on the issue said it shows signs that the administration is divided about how to approach the problem.
"The sad truth is the Trump administration doesn't have a coherent policy on Lebanon. The president knows what he wants, which is to aggressively roll Iran back. There are parts of the administration where people seem committed to carrying out his policy, like Treasury's sanctions division, which has been trying to sanction Hezbollah into the stone age," according to the expert.
"But then you've got the State Department, which seems committed to maintaining a role for Hezbollah, and therefore Iran, in Lebanon. It's from top to bottom. Even our ambassador in Beirut is an Obama holdover who sends along manufactured cables and papers about how Hezbollah is part of Lebanon's political process. They're barely even trying to hide it."
Clifford May, founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said there should be no ambiguity in U.S. policy towards Hezbollah, an armed terror group responsible for the deaths of Americans.
"Secretary Tillerson's initial statement was, at best, ambiguous. His subsequent clarification was not," May said. "Hezbollah is a terrorist organization responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of Americans. It is the obedient agent of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
"There is no separation between its military and political wings—they are attached to the same bird," May said. "Hezbollah's armed forces are dominant in the country—the Lebanese Armed Forces are no match—and they answer to Tehran. I expect Secretary Tillerson understands all that and will, sooner rather than later, act on that understanding."
A Treasury Department spokesman declined to comment on the matter.