The United States Treasury Department announced on Friday, January 21, that it would be enforcing sanctions on three Lebanese individuals and ten companies, based on accusations that they had contributed to terrorist financing on behalf of the Iranian regime. The new sanctions reflect longstanding recognition of the outsized role that Lebanon’s Shiite militant organization, Hezbollah, plays in the Iranian terror network. The intricacy and longevity of that relationship have led to numerous reports of Tehran using Hezbollah as a model for the development of proxy groups elsewhere in the region.
However, that relationship is now being challenged by the simultaneous financial pressures affecting Lebanon and Iran. The announcement of new sanctions on Hezbollah assets specifically addresses Lebanon’s severe financial crisis and accuses the Iran-backed militant group of ignoring the domestic population’s suffering to continue “misuse of the international financial system to raise and launder funds for its destabilizing activities.”
The crisis in question is reportedly the worst Lebanon has faced since its civil war concluded in 1990 after 15 years of fighting. While the country’s national currency lost 90 percent of its value, the poverty rate skyrocketed from 42 percent to 82 percent between 2019 and 2021. Meanwhile, Lebanon saw a decline in the charitable services that Hezbollah has traditionally offered to buy the domestic population’s acquiescence to its more militant activities.
Traditionally, that public relations effort has been financed in large part by the Iranian regime, so one might assume that the reduction in Hezbollah services is at least partly attributable to Iran’s financial crisis, which has been more gradual but has resulted in similar spikes in poverty and unemployment, accompanied by similar declines in the value of the national currency. However, experts such as Hisham Jaber, head of the Middle East Center for Studies and Public Relations, note that the Islamic Republic continues to pay approximately 500 million dollars to Hezbollah per year.
Many of those same experts conclude that this sum’s failure to alleviate the crisis is explainable in terms of its misappropriation. In this sense, they have levied the same accusations as the US Treasury Department has levied against the Iranian regime and Hezbollah. Furthermore, growing numbers of Lebanese people appear to be joining in the effort to assign blame to Tehran for their own economic and social difficulties.
Popular unrest is on the rise in Lebanon, with many activists taking explicit aim at the Islamic Republic and accusing it of a hostile “occupation” that has turned their country into a staging ground for the Iran regime’s pursuit of its interests. More than 200 Lebanese political figures came together last week to form the National Council to Lift the Iranian Occupation of Lebanon.
In its first public statements, the council emphasized that Hezbollah was an agent of that occupation. Foreign Minister and council leader Ahmad Fatfat told reports that the situation being faced by Lebanese people was “occupation by proxy.” He went on to explain: “Even if Iran does not have boots on the ground, Hezbollah exists with 150,000 missiles and 100,000 fighters threatening the country from inside.”
The further problem with that situation is that the missiles and fighters in question are not committed to Lebanon’s self-defense, much less to the welfare of ordinary people living in that country, but instead act as a paramilitary proxy for Tehran in conflicts with Israel, Syrian rebels, and others. Hezbollah played a major role in the fight against ISIL and against moderate opposition groups during Syria’s nearly decade-long civil war, and the Lebanese group’s resources were naturally drained by the severity of that conflict.
Ongoing protests in Lebanon reflect continued awareness of these effects, as evidenced by one 60-year-old female activist’s recent remarks to international media. “Why are we engaging in wars in Syria and Yemen while we are dying of hunger?” she asked, referencing not only Iranian support of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad but also Iranian backing of the Shiite militant group that has been fighting for dominance of Yemen since driving out the country’s internationally-recognized government in 2014.
Such questions are starkly reminiscent of slogans that have become increasingly commonplace inside Iran itself during recent years. That country was rocked by a nationwide uprising in January 2018 and by another, even larger uprising in November 2019. In both and also in numerous other protests, Iranian citizens were heard to chant “forget about Syria; think of us,” to highlight the regime’s misplaced priorities and neglect of a worsening economic crisis at home.
Now, with the formation of the National Council to Lift the Iranian Occupation, it appears that Lebanese citizens are increasingly aware of those same misplaced priorities. Thus, the opportunity exists for activists in both countries to work together toward mitigating the impact of Tehran’s regional ambitions on both of their populations.