With 13 seats in parliament, Hezbollah has sought to expand its presence across all sectors in Lebanon. Its roots run deep in Lebanese politics. Yet its claims of political legitimacy cannot be separated from the violence perpetrated by its militants, largely at the behest of Iran.
That is why the decision by the US Treasury to impose sanctions on two leading Lebanese MPs and a high-ranking security official is so important. One of the parliamentarians, Muhammad Raad, is the head of the Hezbollah bloc in parliament, in charge of ensuring representatives carry out Hezbollah’s agenda.
Having grown considerably in size and influence under Iranian patronage since it emerged in the 1980s to resist Israeli occupation, Hezbollah has spread like a virus through Lebanon’s political institutions. Long after the end of Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, Hezbollah ramped up its activities. By securing seats in parliament, the militia has created a facade of distinguishing between its terrorist and political activities.
Following the decision by the British government to proscribe both wings earlier this year, these US sanctions have once again torn back the veneer, showing Hezbollah for what it really is: an extremist organisation.
As the prototypical Iranian proxy, Hezbollah is turning Lebanon into a regional operating base for Tehran. Despite controlling three ministries in the Lebanese government, the group has sent some 7,000 fighters to prop up Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and money and weapons to Yemen, where Houthi rebels are waging war against the internationally recognised government of Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.
Alongside millions of dollars from Iran, Hezbollah has funded its activities by trafficking narcotics and weapons across the globe. The group has also been accused of partaking in the devastating assassination of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri. The late prime minister’s son, Saad, must now govern alongside Hezbollah ministers.
In 2013, the GCC designated Hezbollah a terrorist group. Since then, its terrorist activities have only increased – and so too has its political influence. The international community is waking up to the threat it poses.
The designation comes at a tense moment for US-Iran relations, as Tehran takes its regional destabilisation to new heights. Hezbollah might claim to be a powerful political force within Lebanon but the group stands ready to be activated by Tehran in the event of conflict.
As US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Sigal Mandelker, said: “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.”
This is Iran’s modus operandi in the region: from Iraq and Yemen to Lebanon and Syria, proxies do the bidding of hardliners in Tehran, causing untold harm in the process. The only way to fight this is to debunk the distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wings and to cut off the group’s revenue streams. The US’s targeted economic measures this week are a significant step in that direction.