Top US senators urge Biden to sanction more Lebanese bankers, politicians

Senators Menendez and Risch slammed Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a longtime Hezbollah ally, for facilitating the tactics used by lawmakers to prevent the quorum needed to elect a new president.

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The two top-ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the US Senate urged the Biden administration to levy more sanctions against Lebanon’s financial and political elite who are engaging in corruption and undermining the rule of law.

Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government for months, and lawmakers have failed to elect a new president since Michel Aoun’s term ended at the end of October. Meanwhile, the economic and social collapse of the country has continued due to political bickering and a flawed sectarian system.

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“Given this new phase of political deadlock and a lack of movement on necessary reforms, we strongly urge the Administration to use its existing authorities to sanction members of Lebanon’s financial and political elite across the political and sectarian spectrum who are engaging in corruption and undermining the rule of law,” Senators Bob Menendez and Jim Risch wrote in a letter to the US secretaries of State and Treasury.

Menendez, the chairman of the committee, and Risch, the top Republican on the committee, said this should be done in coordination with Washington’s European allies.

Consecutive US administrations since 2006 have supported continued American military and economic assistance to Lebanon. Part of the argument has been that supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces is the only way to push back against Iran-backed Hezbollah.

But the years of corruption and siphoning of state funds culminated in recent years with the election of Aoun, backed by Hezbollah and its allies. Ties between Lebanon and its traditional backers, mainly Saudi Arabia, soured, and the COVID-19 pandemic and Beirut blast dealt a further blow to the country.

And with no government, Lebanon has failed to implement reforms needed to unlock international funds and grants as well as a regional gas deal with Egypt.

The lawmakers slammed Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a longtime Hezbollah ally, for facilitating the tactics used by lawmakers to prevent the quorum needed to elect a new president.

“Speaker Berri and other pro-Hezbollah politicians must stop playing procedural games with Lebanon’s future and allow for the maintenance of a quorum and for successive simple majority votes to take place,” the senators said.

Smoke rises from the partially-collapsed Beirut grain silos, damaged in the August 2020 port blast, in Beirut Lebanon August 2, 2022. (Reuters)
Smoke rises from the partially-collapsed Beirut grain silos, damaged in the August 2020 port blast, in Beirut Lebanon August 2, 2022. (Reuters)

Aoun’s government was, however, able to finalize a US-backed deal to demarcate their maritime border with Israel. This is expected to help Lebanon’s long-term economic gains. “However, for too long, Hezbollah and others in Lebanon’s political class have continuously failed to prioritize the needs of the Lebanese people over their own narrow agendas,” the senators wrote.

They added: “The need for an effective elected government, free from malign foreign influence and that prioritizes the needs of its people, cannot be understated.”

The Trump administration sanctioned Aoun’s son-in-law and former foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, Berri’s top political aide and another senior official close to Sleiman Frangieh.

In their letter, the senators said more sanctions were needed to send “a strong message” of US support for Lebanese sovereignty, trans-sectarian institutions, and the rule of law.

Read more: US issues Hezbollah-related sanctions against three Lebanese men, two companies

*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated who signed the letter. It has since been updated.

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