News of the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015, aiming to “prevent Hizballah (sic) from gaining access to international financial and other institutions, and for other purposes,” was met with both praise and skepticism from around the world. Public response runs the gambit from those that think the bill could reinstate sanctions recently lifted on Iranian banks, which could jeopardize the nuclear deal, to those who argue that these measures will not dramatically affect Hezbollah at all. The aims of the Act are two fold in nature: they target financial institutions knowingly conducting business with Hezbollah, and they go after satellite and internet companies that service the Shia-dominated Al-Manar TV station based in Lebanon. The timing of the bill is conspicuous on two levels: it happens just as Hezbollah is stepping up their Assad-supporting efforts in Syria, and just as sanction relief begins to take effect on Iran (which will free up a highly contested amount of money from international financial institutions). Placing sanctions on Hezbollah now would appear critical to insuring that Iran does not use newly released funds to finance Hezbollah (Iran is already a financier of Al-Manar). However, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, speaking to the now U.S. sanctioned Al- Manar news channel, comforts his people, “On the financial level, we assure that we don't have any bank accounts and we don't transfer our money in that way." His claim is supported by experts who assert that, “recent U.S. measures against Hezbollah will not dramatically affect its financial capabilities since most of the transactions are not conducted through banks and financial institutions.” Will U.S. sanctions against financial institutions on the one hand and satellite providers on the other have any effect on Hezbollah’s funding? Or are these sanctions just political posturing?
While the 2015 Act calls for an investigative report to include information about the “methods that [Hezbollah], or any of its agents or affiliates, utilizes to raise or transfer funds, including trade-based money laundering, the use of foreign exchange houses, and free-trade zones,” an earlier version of the bill, passed through the Senate in 2014, includes the results of a fact finding mission likely to be repeated in Obama’s future report. Here we can find information including: the 2002 arrest of two Charlotte, North Carolina men convicted of funding Hezbollah through interstate cigarette smuggling; a 2008 DEA operation (“Titan”) that dismantled a Hezbollah-funding narcotics ring smuggling cocaine into the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East; and the 2009 arrest in Paraguay of four men selling illegal passports, counterfeit money, and illegally obtained electronics and automobiles with funds going to Hezbollah. While none of these illicit activities would necessarily stop as a result of financial sanctions, the report also includes information about the 2011 U.S. Treasury blacklisting of the Lebanese Canadian Bank accused of involvement in a drug trafficking network and money laundering for Hezbollah, and the 2013 U.S. Treasury blacklisting of two Lebanese exchange houses accused of laundering drug profits for Hezbollah. It is likely because of these two events in 2011 and 2013 that an expert, speaking to The Daily Star, asserted, “I think Hezbollah has stopped dealing with Lebanese banks for the last three to four years to avoid being caught by the U.S. Treasury. It seems that most of the funding from Iran is in the form of cash that is transported across the border or illegal entry points.” If this is true, then the Act, though ultimately ineffective, would also be mutually beneficial to both sides of the political aisle: senate republicans opposed to the deal with Iran can live under the delusion that the bill will somehow sour the relationship between the U.S. and Iran, while pro-deal democrats can rest easy knowing that Iran isn’t funding Hezbollah through banks, and thus the bill’s attempt to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Iran will flounder. However, Iran is openly funding Hezbollah-run Al-Manar, which leads us to the second part of the bill.
What is the value of sanctioning Al-Manar? Al-Manar TV, emerging out of the Lebanese civil war, has marketed itself as the voice of Lebanese resistance to Israel since the late 1990s. It is notoriously pro-Palestine, anti-Israel, and pro-Shia but also presents itself as pro-Lebanon and thus a station for Muslims and Christians alike. In 2000, Al-Manar became a satellite station transmitting news 24 hours a day and reaching most of the globe through major satellite providers. It ranks the 3rd most popular station in Lebanon and the 2nd most popular in the West Bank and Gaza. Recently, however, Al-Manar was banned in France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Brazil, Canada, and Australia due to “subtle and overt incitements to violence.” (That Al-Manar has been banned in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is no surprise given the station’s sectarian point of view). And, according to the U.S. Treasury, Al-Manar has also provided support to Palestinian designated terrorist organizations, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and has transferred tens of thousands of dollars for a PIJ-controlled charity. In addition, according Avi Jorisch’s (sometimes sensationalist and inflammatory) book Beacon of Hatred: Inside Hizballah’s (sic) Al-Manar (2004), Al-Manar openly calls for attacks and ‘acts of resistance’ against U.S. targets as well as broadcasting telephone numbers and bank accounts where people can donate money (presumably to Hezbollah). Certainly, sanctioning the station would cut down on the funding of Hezbollah-linked organizations (particularly from Iran). It would also slow the dissemination of Hezbollah’s ideology of violence to Shia and Palestinian citizens living all over the world. But the fact is that it will also achieve something less than “democratic,” and that could be the key to the sanctions’ undoing.
While Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah does not appear concerned about the financial sanctions of banks, he is exceedingly angry about the 2015 sanctions on the Al-Manar TV station. Speaking to Al-Manar, Nasrallah further addresses U.S. sanctions (presumably to Palestinians), “the US wants to accuse you, prosecute you, punish you, and kill you, and after all that you are not permitted to send your voice to the world in order to defend yourself. This is the US which brags about democracy and freedom yet prohibits media outlets which disagree with it to express their points of view." Nasrallah’s rhetoric hits home to those of us that believe in having access to both sides of the information as tensions continue to rise between Israel and Palestine. In a recent article published by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, authors seem to question whether U.S. sanctions against the Al-Manar station would stand up in a U.S. court of law (yes, Al-Manar is broadcast from Washington, D.C. as well). This is, of course, just one of many reasons why sanctioning a TV news station is a questionable form of terror finance prevention. We do not need any more political posturing.