From Rhetoric to Action

Washington Turns Up the Heat on Tehran

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani answers a question during a press conference in New York on September 20, 2017, on the sideline of the 72nd Session of the United Nations General assembly. (Getty)

Hanin Ghaddar*

In the past week, Washington stepped up its rhetoric against Iran and Hezbollah on a number of levels, threatening with measures that will target the Iran Deal, Hezbollah’s financial proceedings, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The combination of these measures somehow shows that the US is not only concerned with the Nuclear Deal, but also with Iran’s regional behavior and its proxy militias. The anti-Iran aggressive rhetoric might translate into practical measures soon.

The first step came from Congress. Republican and Democratic lawmakers started a campaign against Hezbollah last week, in an attempt to rally support for new congressional sanctions, which would curb Hezbollah’s financial dealings.

“This legislation has a whole series of steps to try to close any last loopholes that remain for this criminal enterprise,” Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a briefing on Capitol Hill. “I’ve had long conversations with the government of Lebanon on this, and with … [Prime Minister Saad] Hariri,” said Royce. “These conversations would be more impactful to me and my colleagues if we didn’t have an agent of Hezbollah sitting in a room when we have them,” he said — a reference to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who came to power with support from the group.

The new bill – which is based on a 2015 Hezbollah sanctions package - doesn’t sanction Hezbollah politicians or call out Amal by name, but it would require the US president to issue a public report every year on the net worth of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, members of Hezbollah’s political bureau and anyone the president determines “is a senior foreign political figure of Hezbollah, is associated with Hezbollah, or otherwise provides significant support to Hezbollah.” That information, including “a description of how [those] funds were acquired, and how such funds have been used or employed,” is to be posted on the State Department website and all US embassy websites for everyone in Lebanon to see.

But the bill includes a “sense of Congress” that the president should sanction financial institutions that do business with “any member of parliament or any Cabinet official of Lebanon who is a member of Hezbollah, or any affiliate of Hezbollah.”

Hezbollah immediately reacted to this move. On Sunday, Hasan Nasrallah accused the US of working to hinder the battle against ISIS, and reassured his constituents that these sanctions won’t affect Hezbollah or the Lebanese economy. However, sources close to Hezbollah talk of serious concerns among the party’s leadership regarding these sanctions, mainly fears of Hezbollah’s financial proceedings being cut off from Lebanon’s financial institutions.

But there’s more to this. On Friday, Iran warned the United States against designating its Revolutionary Guard Corp as a terrorist group and said U.S. regional military bases would be at risk if further sanctions were passed. This came as a reaction to a White House statement saying that President Donald Trump would announce new U.S. responses to Iran's missile tests, support for "terrorism" and cyber operations as part of his new Iran strategy.

Members of Iran's Armed Forces attend President Hassan Rouhani's swearing in ceremony in Tehran, on August 5, 2017.

Trump is expected to announce that he will decertify the deal, in a step that potentially could cause the accord to unravel. If Trump does not certify that Iran is in compliance, the U.S. Congress will have 60 days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions waived under the deal.

Last but not least, and in a surprising statement on October 10, the U.S. Department of State's Rewards for Justice Program announced it will offer rewards for information leading to the location, arrest, or conviction in any country of two key Hezbollah leaders. The Department is offering a reward of up to $7 million for information on Talal Hamiyah, and up to $5 million for information on Fu’ad Shukr. This is the first U.S.-issued bounty for Hezbollah leaders in more than a decade.

Talal Hamiyah has been linked to several terrorist attacks, hijackings, and kidnappings targeting U.S. citizens. He leads Hezbollah’s international terrorist branch, the External Security Organization (ESO). The ESO maintains terrorist cells worldwide and is responsible for planning and conducting terrorist attacks outside of Lebanon. Those attacks have targeted primarily Israelis and Americans.

Fu’ad Shukr is a senior Hezbollah military commander of the group’s forces in southern Lebanon and a member of Hezbollah’s highest military body, the Jihad Council. Shukr played a key role in Hezbollah’s recent military operations in Syria and in planning and launching the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in which 241 U.S. service personnel were killed.

Both individuals have been designated by the US Department of Treasury in both 2012 and 2015. “It is our assessment that Hezbollah is determined to give itself a potential homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook,” Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in a briefing.

All of this signals more practical and direct confrontation between the US and Iran, something that deeply concerns Tehran. All through the crisis in Syria and Iraq, Iran has adopted a non-confrontational approach towards the Americas. In Iraq, there has been indirect coordination over the battle against ISIS, where Iran and its Shia militias volunteered to join the war against terrorism, because they want the US to give them a free hand in Syria and Iraq. The Obama administration didn’t mind that, and Iran’s militias were eventually given a free hand in all of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

With the Trump administration, Iran continued the non-confrontational strategy, especially in Syria, where they avoided breaking the red-lines set by the US in the Badiya and the South, hoping that the US will eventually allow them to take over. That worked for a while because the US administration did not really have a Syria or Iran strategy.

Today, with these measures on the horizon, Iran is seriously worried. For a while, they chose a confrontational rhetoric – vs. a non-confrontational action when it comes to the Trump administration - assuming that the US would do the same. However, decertifying the deal, combined with more actions against Hezbollah and the IRGC, means that the US wants to move from rhetoric to action.

It is still too early to tell how serious or damaging these measures are, but it is safe to say at this point that Iran is agitated, and is worried about a potential direct confrontation with the US, something that Iran does not want to consider at this point, and likely cannot afford.

*Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.

Subscribe to the discussion