WASHINGTON – The Trump administration has laid out several new sanctions designations over the last month that target individuals and entities connected to Hamas and Hezbollah who have strong links to the Iranian government.
The newly aggressive posture against Tehran’s proxy network are part of the administration’s broader strategy to push back against Iran’s activities in the region, which it views as hegemonic and destabilizing to the greater Middle East. The Treasury Department is leading the way, while the State Department hopes to persuade European powers to adopt a tougher approach toward Tehran for its regional behavior and ballistic-missile program. The US says Iran was emboldened by a 2015 international agreement on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
Last month, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a team to combat Hezbollah’s drug-trafficking operations. Last week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced new sanctions against six people and seven businesses associated with Hezbollah, in what Mnuchin characterized as the “first wave” of many sanctions to come.
“We will be relentless in identifying, exposing and dismantling Hezbollah’s financial support networks globally,” Mnuchin said.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it more bluntly, writing on Twitter: “We will no longer allow corrupt Hezbollah and other Iranian regime cronies to hide their crimes behind front companies. More to come.”
Also last week, the State Department said that Ismail Haniyeh, the leader and president of the Hamas’s political bureau, and Harakat al-Sabireen, an Iranian- backed group operating in Gaza and the West Bank, were “sponsored and directed by Iran.” It designated both as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists,” a classification that comes with some of the government’s harshest sanctions.
These sanctions against the proxies are in addition to a slew of new sanctions that have directly targeted the Iranian government over human-rights abuses, missile work and support for terrorism. In short, the Trump administration has in the past year “more than tripled the number” of US sanctions on Iran and its proxies, US Vice President Mike Pence told the Knesset during his visit to Israel last month.
The interagency effort has even brought in Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special representative for international negotiations, who is squarely focused on restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Greenblatt is not involved in Iran policy, but is involved in efforts to forge Israeli-Arab peace, inseparable from concerns over Tehran’s regional ambitions.
“Imagine what the people of Gaza could do with the $100 million Iran gives Hamas annually, that Hamas uses for weapons and tunnels to attack Israel,” Greenblatt tweeted this week. “Iran spends almost a billion dollars a year sponsoring terrorism in Lebanon, Israel and West Bank/ Gaza. This blood money only increases violence and does nothing to help the Palestinian people.”
Congress is doing its part as well. Last October it passed with bipartisan support three bills that address Hezbollah activity. One encourages the European Union to fully designate all of Hezbollah a terrorist organization, after the transcontinental body listed only its “military wing” as such in 2013. Another would sanction individual members of Hezbollah for war crimes for their use of human shields. The third would beef up a 2015 sanctions law targeting Hezbollah’s financing, requiring the president to report annually to Congress on the net worth of the group’s leaders.
US officials say this is just the beginning of a concerted effort to stop Iran’s push toward dominance by creating a “Shi’a crescent,” reaching from Tehran to the Mediterranean and up against Israel’s northern and eastern borders. The Israeli government welcomes this newly proactive strategy and now hopes Europe will get on board.
In a message to Britain, France and Germany, Trump threatened to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal if the allies fail to join him in targeting Iran’s proxies. “They should designate Hezbollah – in its entirety – as a terrorist organization,” Trump said, echoing the congressional bill.
On January 12, the president started a 120-day clock on talks with Europe to negotiate an addendum to the Iran nuclear deal. Trump’s aides say he is willing to remain a party to the agreement, for now, if Europe takes concrete actions against Iran’s “malign activities” and ballistic-missile work and agrees to seriously discuss his concerns with the deal.
“They should join us in constraining Iran’s missile development and stopping its proliferation of missiles, especially to Yemen,” Trump continued. “They should join us in countering Iran’s cyberthreats. They should help us deter Iran’s aggression against international shipping. They should pressure the Iranian regime to stop violating its citizens’ rights. And they should not do business with groups that enrich Iran’s dictatorship or fund the Revolutionary Guard and its terrorist proxies.”