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US foreign policy

US officials in Beirut as new sanctions await Lebanon’s politicians and Iran

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Treasury Department officials are in Lebanon for a three-day visit to discuss “corruption, illicit finance, and counterterrorism,” the US Embassy in Beirut said Monday.

The delegation comprises officials from the Treasury Department’s Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes (TFFC) office. They will meet with “financial sector interlocutors and civil society groups,” a statement from the embassy read.

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It is unclear if the visit and its timing are a prelude for sanctions in the pipeline following the latest failure by Lebanese politicians to form a new government.

A Treasury spokesperson said the trip was “a routine staff level trip focused on corruption, illicit finance, and counterterrorism.”

Asked if it was to study the potential for sanctions on corrupt officials or individuals that cooperate with Hezbollah and other terrorist groups to launder money, the Treasury official told Al Arabiya English: “It is not tied to any specific event.”

A US diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, echoed this sentiment. “I don’t know about new sanctions … things are already really bad [in Lebanon],” the diplomat said.

But analysts and individuals on the think-tank scene in Washington are questioning the timing of the trip to Beirut.

France and the European Union have said they hope to agree on a framework for a sanctions regime by the end of the month on Lebanese politicians for rampant corruption and blocking the formation of a new government.

Analysts in Washington point to the Biden administration's preference of coordinating with allies when issuing new sanctions.

In April, France said it was banning certain Lebanese politicians and individuals from entering France over allegations of corruption and hindering the formation of a new government. But no list of names has been published.

Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran

Iran-backed Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist organization by the US and many European and Gulf capitals. Hezbollah officials and allies came under crushing economic sanctions during the Trump administration’s time in office.

When President Joe Biden eased US pressure on Tehran, Iran’s proxies, including the Lebanese militant group, saw it as a chance to breathe.

But in May, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on seven individuals for evading sanctions and funneling millions of dollars to Hezbollah. When the sanctions were announced, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Hezbollah continued to pose a threat to the US, its interests in the Middle East and globally. Blinken called on the international community to take steps to restrict Hezbollah’s activities and “disrupt its facilitation networks.”

In recent weeks, Hezbollah’s backers decided to halt indirect talks with the US over a nuclear deal until the new Iranian government takes over next month.

US officials have repeatedly said they will wait for Iran to return to the talks in Vienna but that they could change their approach if needed.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US was planning ways to “tighten” sanctions on Iran’s oil sector due to increased concern and frustration that a new nuclear deal may not be agreed to.

Citing US officials, the WSJ reported that one plan being drafted "would choke off Iran’s swelling crude-oil sales to China, the country’s main client, through fresh sanctions targeting the shipping networks that help export an estimated one million barrels a day and bring critical revenue to Iran.”

A second US diplomat, based in the Middle East, could not confirm or deny that potential sanctions were the reason for the Treasury Department delegations’ trip to Beirut. US officials do not preview upcoming policy decisions related to sanctions.

“Who knows? Maybe they’ll find [individuals] to sanction,” the second diplomat said.

Police stand outside a hotel where a meeting of the JCPOA is held in Vienna, Austria, April 20, 2021. (Reuters)
Police stand outside a hotel where a meeting of the JCPOA is held in Vienna, Austria, April 20, 2021. (Reuters)

Syria and the Caesar Act

It is also worth noting that Egypt and Jordan, in tandem with the World Bank, are working to convince the US to allow for the export of natural gas and electricity to Lebanon. Both exports would need to pass through Syria and could expose Cairo and Amman to US sanctions under the Caesar Act law.

Jordan's King Abdullah II is in Washington for meetings with top US officials, including Biden, this week. He is expected to raise the issue of easing ramifications of the Caesar Act on Jordan, which borders Syria.

According to the White House, Alice Tobin, the director for Jordan and Lebanon at the National Security Council, was present during the expanded bilateral meeting between Biden and Abdullah.

Read more: US urged to allow Egypt, Jordan gas deal with Lebanon via Arab Gas Pipeline

This article has been updated to include comments from the Treasury Department, provided after the original article was published.