Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. European Media Hub in Brussels. I would like to welcome all of our speakers today as well as the journalists joining us from around the world.
Just a reminder that today’s call is on Background and not for attribution. This means that you may use the quotes and material from today’s call in your reporting, but may not cite the speaker by name.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from our speakers and then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have which is approximately 30 minutes.
With that, I will turn it over to our first speaker, Senior Official #1.
Senior Official #1: Good afternoon. Today the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, took action against three Hezbollah political and security figures. Specifically we designated two Hezbollah members of Parliament — Muhammad Hasan Ra’d and Amin Sherri; and a Hezbollah security official, Wafiq Safa.
This action addresses our top tier Hezbollah strategic priorities of targeting individuals and entities that enable Hezbollah to advance its terrorist objectives and disrupting and exposing Hezbollah involvement and affiliation with violent and criminal activity.
This specific action exposes Hezbollah’s abuse of Lebanon democracy and manipulation of the Lebanese political apparatus, protects Hezbollah’s own power, and bolsters its influence. Hezbollah continues to use its position to pursue its own interests and those of its primary benefactor, Iran, all at the cost to the Lebanese people.
With today’s designation, this administration will have designated 50 Hezbollah-related individuals and entities since 2017. That’s on top of the over a thousand designations that we’ve had related to Iran.
Let me provide you with a brief description of the three individuals we designated today, and of course we have more details in our press release.
First, Amin Sherri. Amin Sherri is a Hezbollah member of Parliament. As such he represents the maligned interests of Hezbollah as opposed to the communities and citizens he pledged to stand up for.
As a financial interlocutor, Sherri’s role has included influencing decision-making and pressuring financial institutions in Lebanon to assist Hezbollah in limiting the impact of U.S. Treasury designations.
Just last year Sherri threatened violence against bank officials and their family members after the bank froze the accounts of a U.S. designated Hezbollah financier. This behavior, of course, is unacceptable for anyone, much less a member of Parliament who instead of advancing the interests of the Lebanese people that he supposedly represents, is using Mafia-like behavior. The threats of violence he uses against Lebanese citizens demonstrate the length to which Hezbollah will go to preserve its interests at the continual cost to the Lebanese people, stability in the region, and stability within the Lebanese financial sector.
I would also refer you to the picture that we published in our press release about Amin Sherri where you will see Qasem Soleimani with his arm around Sherri. What more do you need to know about him?
Second, we designated Mahammad Hasan Ra’d. Ra’d is a member of Hezbollah’s Shura Council. He has been a member of Hezbollah’s Shura Council since 2009. As we have noted before, the Shura Council is Hezbollah’s highest command and is responsible for deciding religious and strategic matters and has overall administrative planning and policy-making powers. In other words, he is also a key Hezbollah decision-maker.
Ra’d is a member of Parliament in Lebanon. He is the head of the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc in the Lebanese Parliament, which is Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc. In the Shura Council he heads up their parliamentary council, which is one of five subordinate councils under the Shura Council. This specific council ensures that parliamentary representatives like Ra’d himself carry out Hezbollah’s decisions and policies in the parliament.
Like Sherri and Wafiq Safa who I will address in a minute, Ra’d also has ties to designated Hezbollah financiers. In fact, in 2017 he met with two designated Hezbollah businessmen, Adham Tabaja and Husayn Ali Faour who was OFAC designated in 2015 to ensure Hezbollah’s funding mechanism would remain open despite sanctions.
Next we have Wafiq Safa. Safa is the head of Hezbollah’s security apparatus. In this role, he is responsible for coordinating between Hezbollah and the Lebanese security agencies. He has exploited Lebanese institutions to advance Hezbollah maligned objectives. He facilitated among other things the entry of illegal drugs and weapons into Beirut. Hezbollah relies on Safa for a very specific reason. He can facilitate the passage of illicit items without scrutiny.
His corrupt actions directly threaten the security of Lebanon and its people.
Today’s action also highlights the extent to which Hezbollah is entrenched in the Lebanese political fabric. Hezbollah has been able to exploit Lebanon’s political apparatus to embed members at several levels. This action today, once again, points to the false distinction between Hezbollah’s so-called political wing and military wing.
The group that is running for political office is the very same group that is responsible for numerous attacks worldwide against the United States, Israel, Jewish communities, other European and Latin American targets, and the Lebanese people. They are one and the same. In fact, as you’ll see in the press release, Ra’d himself declared, “Hezbollah is a military resistance party. There is no separation between politics and resistance.”
Just this year the UK designated the entirety of the terrorist group. We believe it is time for other nations around the world to recognize that there is no distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wing. To expose this terrorist organization for what it is in confronting its networks and its sponsors and in mobilizing a global response to counter the threat it poses to the civilized world.
To any member of Hezbollah considering running for office, know that you will not be able to hide beneath the cover of political office. This administration will continue targeting Hezbollah businessmen, its companies, its operatives, its officials and anyone who facilitates its activities, and we will use all available tools including sanctions to degrade Hezbollah’s capabilities and mitigate its threats to Lebanon, the region and the world.
Now I’ll turn it over to my colleagues in the State Department.
Senior Official #2: Thank you.
As my Treasury colleague emphasized, today’s action shows that there is truly no distinction between Hezbollah’s military and so-called political wing. Hezbollah’s politicians use their positions to enable Hezbollah’s military activities, terrorist operations and illicit business enterprises.
Today is also a new kind of action because it is aimed partially at Hezbollah members of parliament, but the documented behavior of the two members of parliament that are designated today shows that they’re not really members of parliament. They’re in actuality thug enforcers who systematically intimidate other actors in the government of Lebanon and in the Lebanese private sector and they’ve done so with impunity for many years.
Their behavior which is documented today also shows that they’re money-launderers and sanctions evaders, and they’ve behaved as though they’re untouchable, but today’s actions show they and others like them are not untouchable.
For Wafiq Safa in particular, he has a special role within Hezbollah and within Lebanon. His special role is that of an intimidator of the Lebanese government’s security institutions. He is the enforcer with regard to other Lebanese security institutions on behalf of Hezbollah and also on behalf of the IRGC Quds Force. But all three of the Hezbollah members who are being designated today have been key enablers of Hezbollah’s military and terrorist interventions around the region. First and foremost in Syria, but also in Yemen, Iraq and beyond. And all three are key actors in the broader network that is run by Qasem Soleimani and the IRGC Quds Force, so they represent the actors who allow the Iranian regime to reach inside Lebanon and use it as a particularly destabilizing platform.
Senior Official #3: Good morning. From an NSC perspective, once again, it’s always our pleasure to thank our indefatigable colleagues at Treasury who have been the tip of the spear that is President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran.
I’m also pleased to have our friends from State here as well, demonstrating that this campaign is a joint exercise supported across the administration as we harness all of our diplomatic and economic tools to further the President’s Iran policy.
With this action to designate three key Hezbollah figures including two members of the Lebanese parliament for their open affiliation with Hezbollah, the gloves are officially off, to paraphrase Secretary Pompeo. Lebanon cannot have the stable, prosperous and secure future the people of Lebanon deserve when the maligned proxy of another country, in this case Iran, has infiltrated its government. And the United States cannot continue to support this infiltration through ongoing unconditioned aid to Lebanon.
There is no distinction, as my colleague said, between Hezbollah’s military and political wing, both of which advance its terrorist ideology and both of which take orders from Tehran.
The whole organization is toxic for Lebanon and will only become more so as Iran’s increasingly moribund economy cannot meet its historic level of support for Hezbollah, forcing the terror groups to turn to the people and the government of Lebanon for more resources to pay for the fighters, the terror tunnels, and the ever-increasing arsenal of rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.
This action should serve as a wakeup call to the government of Lebanon that the United States will no longer turn a blind eye to the expanding role of Hezbollah which poses a direct threat to Lebanese sovereignty as well as an intolerable security threat to Israel. We stand by to help our friends in Beirut roll back this maligned actor, but they are also going to have to want to help themselves as well.
With that, I think we can open it up to questions
Moderator: Thank you very much for your remarks.
Our first question comes to us from Guido Lafranchi with Diplomat Magazine in the Netherlands.
Question: Thank you very much for your remarks, to all three speakers. You talked a lot about the distinction, that you say there is no distinction between the military wing and the political wing of Hezbollah. I want to ask how do you draw a distinction between Hezbollah and other parts of the Lebanese state and government, especially given that the organization is increasingly bold in a lot of institutions in Lebanon. Thank you.
Senior Official #2: Thank you for the question. The simple answer is we draw a distinction based on the behavior of the individuals in the organizations. I think today’s action shows that others in the government of Lebanon and in the Lebanese private sector should sever their ties with the people that we’ve designated today, just as we believe they should sever their ties with Hezbollah itself, because it’s a terrorist organization.
Senior Official #3: The big question for the Lebanese people, as we’ve described the activities of these individuals and what they’ve been up to in many different respects to support Hezbollah’s engagement in violent activity, criminal activity to threaten banks, to smuggle drugs, et cetera, is this really who they want to be representing them in the Lebanese government, because these are people who are not representing their interests. They’re representing the interests of a terrorist group.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those answers.
Our next question comes to us from Thomas Nehls with ARD in Germany.
Question: I’m a little bit astonished because while the majority in the UN I think exempt certain Hezbollah gentlemen and maybe women too as elected members of the parliament and members of the government, you supposedly don’t. That’s the first question.
The other one is, in those cases, you told us why it doesn’t go to the International Court to let it rule out there? Is it just because the U.S. doesn’t accept the International Court? Or what’s the reason? I’m a little bit confused about the whole story.
Senior Official #3: Thank you for the opportunity to clear this up. The United States government does not set its policy based on majorities in the United Nations, and we’re not a signatory to the ICC.
Senior Official #2: However, since your country is, an observer might think it’s a perfectly reasonable case for your government to take these people to the International Criminal Court for their terrorist crimes and illicit activities.
Moderator: Thank you for that answer.
While we’re waiting for questions to come in, do our speakers have any additional points that they would like to make?
Senior Official #2: No, thank you. Appreciate it.
Moderator: We did have one question that just came in from Amichai Stein with Kan IBPC in Israel.
Question: My question is, does the U.S., what steps are the U.S. doing to try and influence more countries to sanction also Hezbollah political, Iranian-backed Hezbollah political figures outside the U.S.?
Senior Official #2: We have an ongoing engagement with all of our allies and partners about getting rid of the false distinction between Hezbollah’s military/terrorist and political wing. So we were very gratified to see the United Kingdom take the step of dropping that false distinction recently. But in many engagements when we discuss the problems of Hezbollah with our allies and partners, we emphasize to them that this is a necessary step to drop the façade, and I think today’s designations show why. It’s because within Lebanon, Hezbollah uses its place in the Parliament and its place in the Lebanese ministries as a cover for insulating Hezbollah’s military and terrorist operations from pressure that they might otherwise get from the Lebanese political system and the Lebanese public and essentially to run interference for Hezbollah’s military and terrorist operations and to run interference for the IRGC Quds Force’s use of Hezbollah as essentially a forward strategic missile base to threaten Lebanon’s neighbors in the region.
So this is a discussion that we have with our allies and partners. I think we’re leading by example today by showing exactly what it is we think that our allies and partners ought to do. They ought to look at the behavior, they ought to look at the behavior of the people that we otherwise, that in the past they’ve categorized as Hezbollah politicians. These are not politicians. These are military operatives. These are terrorist operatives. These are enablers of a terrorist organization that has worldwide reach.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that answer.
Unfortunately, that was the last question that we have time for today. Speakers, do you have any closing words that you would like to offer?
Senior Official #2: Thank you for joining the call. Appreciate it.
Moderator: Thank you very much.
I would like to thank the speakers for joining us as well as thank all of you for your participation and questions.
Again, a reminder that today’s call is on Background and not for attribution. This means that you may use quotes and material from today’s call in your reporting but may not cite the speakers by name.