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U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Lebanese Politician Allied With Hezbollah

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WASHINGTON — The United States imposed sanctions on Friday on a prominent Lebanese politician and key ally of Hezbollah, the militant group and political party backed by Iran, for accusations of corruption.

The action is the latest in the Trump administration’s efforts to lock in pressure against Tehran in the months before an election that could lead to President Trump’s leaving the White House. It also broadened that pressure under the guise of striking at systemic corruption in Lebanon, which is on the brink of political and economic collapse.

The Treasury Department issued the sanctions against the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, who has also served as minister of telecommunications, energy and foreign affairs. Mr. Bassil, a Maronite Christian, is a son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, meaning that the sanctions struck near the top of Lebanon’s power structure.

The department said that Mr. Bassil was at “the forefront of corruption in Lebanon” and accused him of using government positions to install loyalists in prominent posts and to route state funds to people close to him through front companies.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that Mr. Bassil had “undermined good governance and contributed to the prevailing system of corruption and political patronage that plagues Lebanon, which has aided and abetted Hezbollah’s destabilizing activities.”

Mr. Bassil responded to the sanctions on Twitter, writing, “No sanctions frightened me, nor promises tempted me.”

“I will not turn against any Lebanese nor save myself to let Lebanon perish,” he wrote.

For years, the United States has sought to diminish the power of Hezbollah, which is widely seen as Lebanon’s strongest miliary force and one of its most effective political parties. The United States, Israel and other countries consider it a terrorist organization.

The Trump administration has expanded sanctions on members of Hezbollah by going after those seen to enable the group’s role in the Lebanese government. Mr. Bassil is the most prominent, and his party has often partnered with Hezbollah in coalition governments.

The announcement on Friday did not mention Hezbollah, but a senior United States official cited Mr. Bassil’s support for the group as a reason for the action. In September, the United States announced sanctions against two less-prominent former Lebanese ministers for corruption and assisting Hezbollah.

In Lebanon, the sanctions were viewed as likely to end Mr. Bassil’s political prospects, including possibly following his father-in-law as president, which had been speculated. It remained unclear how Mr. Bassil’s party would respond to the sanctions against its leader and whether it would appoint a new head who could freely engage with American officials and travel to the United States.

Party members reached on Friday declined to comment on its future. Hezbollah, in a statement, condemned the United States’ action and called it an attempt to interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs.

The action against Mr. Bassil for corruption, and not officially for his relationship with Hezbollah, also raised the question of whether the United States would go after others on similar grounds. Lebanon is in an economic crisis that has been heavily exacerbated by widespread corruption among its politicians, including those seen as allies of the United States.

Mr. Bassil had not previously had sanctions levied against him by the United States. He was penalized under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows America to impose punishments on grounds of human rights violations and corruption by freezing assets held in the United States and barring entry to the country.

Mr. Bassil has disputed the United States’ characterization of Hezbollah as a terrorist group, saying it is vital to Lebanon’s defense against Israel and extremist groups like the Islamic State.

Pranshu Verma reported from Washington, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon. Kareem Chehayeb and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.

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