Will they deal a decisive blow?

The Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah has had a chokehold on the Land of the Cedars. Provided with a huge infusion of Iranian cash, arms, and occasionally Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps IRGC) personnel, it has dominated Lebanon’s political life and has superseded its military. The U.S. imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran have dried up a large portion of the funding allocated to Hezbollah. It has resulted in salary cuts for Hezbollah fighters who are being furloughed or assigned to the reserves and are now receiving lower salaries, or no pay at all. Its major mouthpiece - al-Manar TV, is also undergoing cuts, forcing it to dismiss staff. According to Hanin Ghaddar, political analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (3/6/2019), Hezbollah “fighters and their families are beginning to complain about lost wages - a largely unprecedented development.  Married fighters are reportedly receiving only half of their salaries, which normally range from $600 to $1200 a month, and single fighters are receiving only $200 a month.”

In the meantime, Bloomberg News reported (7/9/2019) that the U.S. Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on Hezbollah officials for what it calls a “malign agenda” to provide support to the IRGC. The U.S. Treasury Department added Amin Sherri, and Mohammad Ra’d, who are members of Lebanon’s parliament, as well as, Wafiq Safa, a security official, to the sanction list for acting for or on behalf of Hezbollah. Sigal Mandelker, U.S. Treasury top sanctions official stated that, “Hezbollah uses its operatives in Lebanon’s parliament to manipulate institutions in support of the terrorist group’s financial and security interests, and to bolster Iran’s malign activities.” Hezbollah has hitherto been able to use the Lebanese state financial institutions to gain access to the U.S. financial system, and thus launder money and evade sanctions.

The second-round sanctions imposed by the U.S. late last year has targeted Iran’s main source of revenue, namely, the sale of the black gold - oil. The U.S. aims to eliminate Iran’s primary source of income. The U.S. is of the belief that a bankrupt Iran will be unable to fund its nefarious terrorist activities throughout the Middle East and beyond. Washington’s hopes to induce the Iranian people to either push the Ayatollahs theocratic regime to be replaced, or compel it to come to the negotiating table, to renegotiate a new and a tougher Nuclear deal.

U.S. sanctions are not only aimed directly at Hezbollah’s patron, the Iranian regime, but it also seeks to impact the Party of God (Hezbollah in Arabic). Hezbollah’s annual budget is estimated to be approximately $700 million, with about 80% of it coming from Iran. As previously mentioned, the U.S. Treasury has been targeting Hezbollah’s revenue from overseas sources. In recent years, the U.S. Treasury has shutdown bank accounts of Lebanese Christians who transferred funds to Hezbollah. North African businessmen (of Lebanese origin) who contributed to Hezbollah not only had their bank accounts shut down but were remanded to U.S. authorities. In 2011, a Lebanese bank in Canada was closed upon discovery that it had laundered money aimed for Hezbollah.  

During the last two decades, Hezbollah has worked tirelessly to diversify its sources of income. It has built a parallel economy in Lebanon (it is the second largest employer in Lebanon after the State), and it is involved in economic and financial activities across several continents: Africa, Latin America and Asia.  Its activities – mostly criminal, in these continents, involve money laundering, drug trafficking, and construction. With the U.S. sanctions imposed last October, Hezbollah is seeking to cut expenses by channeling its loyalists on its payroll to seek jobs in the Lebanese government bureaucracy.

Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who generally uses his speeches to rally his supporters, and call for Jihad against Israel, has this month used his speeches to raise money for the terror organization, calling for a “financial jihad.” Hezbollah has recently launched a foundation to raise funds in Lebanon, calling it “The Foundation for the Support of the Resistance.”

In addition to the burdensome U.S. sanctions which contributed to the current economic crisis faced by Hezbollah, its adventurous deployment of Hezbollah fighters in Syria to insure the survival of the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, has become a serious financial hardship. The long and costly war in Syria has reduced Iran’s ability to support its Lebanese proxy. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Nasrallah has committed himself to support the families of about 2,000 Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria. Moreover, Nasrallah who is obsessive about fighting Israel, is likewise committed to support the families of fighters who were killed in terror operations against Israel. It has resulted in families of Shaheed’s (so called martyrs) receiving smaller subventions, and Hezbollah fighters losing such benefits as free medical drugs, and free public transportation within Lebanon.  

The economic crisis engulfing the “resistance axis,” of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, is impacting particularly on Syria. Damascus is unable to rebuild its war damaged economy. The Syrian population is suffering from increased poverty, high cost of living, and major shortages. Russia, Assad’s main ally, is unable to shoulder the cost of rebuilding war-ravaged Syria on its own. The European Union states have joined the U.S. in imposing sanctions on Syria and singling out Bashar Assad as a war criminal. The rich Sunni Arab Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have also joined in the economic siege of Iran and Hezbollah, having recruited Egypt, Jordan and Morocco to do the same.

Lest we forget, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called Hezbollah, “The A team of terrorism.” Hezbollah’s record of terror attack by suicide bombers includes the 1983 suicide truck bombing of the U.S. Marine compound in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. Marine peacekeepers, and wounding hundreds. The 1996 bombing of the Kobar Towers in Saudi Arabia resulted in the killing of 19 U.S. servicemen while asleep, and wounding hundreds. The 1992, bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 29 civilians and wounding hundreds, and the 1994, bombing attack on the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 innocent civilians, including many children. That is only a short list of Hezbollah’s murderous attacks. The list, however, also includes terror attacks in Africa, Asia, and in the U.S. that did not necessarily result in a high casualty count.

The cutbacks in Iran’s contributions to Hezbollah has coincided with a steep downturn in the Lebanese economy. It is affecting Lebanese companies who have regularly contributed to Hezbollah, and Lebanese Shiites whose income has declined. Still, it would be a mistake to consider that the current U.S. sanctions alone would deal a decisive blow to Hezbollah’s future. The “Party of God” is deeply entrenched in Lebanese life, and the only way the U.S. and its allies could bring down the terror organization is by dislodging it from the Lebanese state. U.S. aid to the Lebanese government and the Lebanese army invariably ends up supporting Hezbollah. The U.S. must condition such aid on the total removal of Hezbollah from the levers of power, which at the moment seems unlikely to happen.