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US puts Hezbollah lawmakers on sanctions blacklist for first time

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Washington (AFP)

The US Treasury placed two Hezbollah members of Lebanon's parliament on its sanctions blacklist on Tuesday -- the first time Washington has taken aim at the Iran-allied group's elected politicians.

Stepping up its effort to build global pressure on the powerful Lebanese Shiite movement, the Treasury named MPs Amin Sherri and Muhammad Hasan Raad to a terror-related blacklist, saying that Hezbollah uses its parliamentary power to advance its alleged violent activities.

Also placed on the blacklist was Wafiq Safa, a top Hezbollah official close to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.

"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," said Sigal Mandelker, Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.

The move came as the US bolsters pressure on Iran and its alleged "proxies" in the Middle East, including Hezbollah, which Washington has officially designated a "terrorist group."

- No sanctions yet on Iran's Zarif -

However, officials stopped short of a threatened sanctions action against Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

On June 24, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Zarif would be added to the sanctions list "later this week," amid rising tensions in the Gulf and Tehran's move to break its obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal.

A senior administration official who insisted on anonymity would not confirm any plan to blacklist Zarif, who was crucial in achieving the landmark deal.

"We are obviously exploring ... various avenues for additional sanctions on Tehran. Obviously Foreign Minister Zarif is a figure of key interest," she said.

It was the first time the US Treasury had placed Hezbollah lawmakers on its blacklist, which forbids US individuals and businesses with a US branch -- including leading international banks -- from doing business with those sanctioned.

- Part of Lebanon's ruling coalition -

With the electoral backing of many Lebanese Shiites, Hezbollah won 13 seats out of 128 in the May 6, 2018 general election.

Eventually it joined a coalition government formed on January 31, 2019, gaining control of two ministries.

But Washington says it will not regard the group's political and militia activities as separate from one another.

"It is time, we believe, for other nations around the world to recognize that there is no distinction between Hezbollah's political and military wing," the senior US administration official said.

"To any member of Hezbollah considering running for office, know that you will not be able to hide beneath the cover of political office," she said.

Raad, 64, is the head of the parliamentary bloc of the party and an MP since 1992.

Sherri, 62, is a 17-year Hezbollah veteran of parliament representing Beirut.

Safa, the Treasury said, maintains the group's ties to financiers and allegedly helps arrange the smuggling of weapons and drugs.

The newest sanctions brought to 50 the number of Hezbollah individuals and entities blacklisted by the Treasury since 2017.

They have included bankers and businessmen that Washington says are deeply involved in Hezbollah business activities around the world, allegedly including narcotics trafficking and gun-running.

They also include people tied to Hezbollah's militant arm and its Shura leadership council.

After US-Iran tensions boiled in May and worries spread of a military conflict, Nasrallah warned a war between the two would go well beyond their borders.

"Trump, his administration, and his intelligence know well that any war on Iran will not remain confined to Iran's borders," he said.

The movement, which has fought Israel in border clashes several times, has joined Iran in backing the Assad government in neighboring Syria against a US-led coalition pressing for regime change.

Hezbollah has also been accused of aiding Iran's support for Yemen's Houthi rebels against a US-backed Saudi-United Arab Emirates coalition fighting them.

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