by News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
Sanctions target Iranian experts U.S. State Dept. says could be tasked with restarting nuclear program
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, right, shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Beirut, Friday
Washington hit Iran with new sanctions on Friday while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was denouncing Iran's growing influence on a visit to Lebanon.
The Treasury Department said the sanctions target 31 Iranian scientists, technicians and companies affiliated with Iran's Organization for Defense Innovation and Research, which had been at the forefront of the country's former nuclear weapons program. Officials said those targeted continue to work in Iran's defense sector and form a core of experts who could reconstitute that program. Fourteen people, including the head of the organization, and 17 subsidiary operations are covered by the sanctions.
The sanctions freeze any assets that those targeted may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from any transactions with them. But officials say the move will also make those targeted "radioactive internationally" by making people of any nationality who do business with them subject to U.S. penalties under so-called secondary sanctions.
U.S. secondary sanctions apply to foreign businesses and individuals and can include fines, loss of presence in the American economy, asset freezes and travel bans. Officials said the threat of such sanctions will significantly limit the ability of those designated to travel outside of Iran, participate in research conferences or be hired for other jobs.
"Individuals working for Iran's proliferation-related programs – including scientists, procurement agents, and technical experts – should be aware of the reputational and financial risk they expose themselves to by working for Iran's nuclear program," the State Department said in a statement.
The move is unusual because the sanctions are not being imposed based on what those targeted are currently doing.
Instead, they were imposed because of their past work on nuclear weapons development and the potential that they would be at the forefront of any Iranian attempt to restart that program. Iran pledged not to resume atomic weapons work under the 2015 nuclear deal and the U.N.'s atomic watchdog says Iran continues to comply with the agreement.
The U.S., however, pulled out of the agreement last year, saying it was fatally flawed and allowed Iran to gradually begin advanced atomic work over time. The Trump administration has re-imposed U.S. sanctions that were eased under the terms of the deal and is continuing to impose new ones as part a pressure campaign to force Iran to renegotiate the agreement.
Officials said the decision to move ahead with the sanctions was in part based on Israel's recovery of what it and the U.S. call a "secret archive" of documents from Iran that they say shows Iran deliberately preserved and stored its early nuclear weapons work, known as the "Amad plan," with the intent to someday resume development of a bomb.
"As the world has learned from the recently-discovered secret Iranian nuclear archive, which revealed the names of some of the individuals sanctioned today, unanswered questions remain regarding Iran's undisclosed past nuclear-related activities under the Amad plan, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile," the State Department said in a statement.
The announcement came as Pompeo was in Beirut warning Lebanese officials to curb the influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement. He said Hezbollah should not be allowed to set policies or wield power despite its presence in Lebanon's parliament and government.
He called on the Lebanese people to stand up to Hezbollah's "criminality, terror and threats."
His comments in Beirut were in strong contrast to those of his host, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil who minutes earlier, while standing next to Pompeo, insisted that Hezbollah is "a Lebanese group that is not a terrorist organization and was elected by the people."
Pompeo, however, warned that "the Lebanese people face a choice: Bravely move forward or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future."
He added that the U.S. would continue using "all peaceful means" to curb Hezbollah and Iran's influence.
"Lebanon faces a choice: bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation, or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future," he said.
Pompeo highlighted U.S. concerns about Hezbollah's "destabilizing activities" in Lebanon and the region in talks his with Lebanese leaders.
The visit is the last leg of a Middle East tour that took Pompeo to Kuwait and Israel, where he lauded warm ties with Israel, met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on at least three separate occasions and promised to step up pressure on Iran.
In Beirut, Pompeo also met with Lebanon's powerful Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, before heading for a working lunch with Prime Minister Saad Hariri followed by a meeting with President Michel Aoun. The State Department's deputy spokesman, Robert Palladino, said Pompeo highlighted in the meetings U.S. concerns about Hezbollah's "destabilizing activities in Lebanon and the region" as well as the need to maintain calm along the border between Lebanon and Israel.
In his Lebanon visit, Pompeo had hoped to step up pressure on the Shiite Hezbollah group, but he faces resistance even from America's local allies, who fear that pushing too hard could trigger a backlash and endanger the tiny country's fragile peace. Hezbollah wields more power than ever in parliament and the government.
Bassil, Aoun and Berri are close Hezbollah allies, while Hariri is a close Western ally who has been reluctant to confront Hezbollah.
Bassil said Lebanon was committed to calm in the south, which borders Israel, adding that the country had the natural right to defend itself and "to resist any occupation of its land. … This is a holy right."
"How does stockpiling tens of thousands of missiles in Lebanon territory for use against Israel make this country stronger?" asked Pompeo, referring to Hezbollah's arsenal that the group boasts can strike any part of Israel.
"Hezbollah and its illegitimate militia put the entire country on the front lines of Iran's misguided proxy campaign," Pompeo added.
Pompeo cited a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah this month asking the group's supporters for funds as evidence U.S. pressure was working.
"Our pressure on Iran is simple. It's aimed at cutting off the funding for terrorists and it's working," Pompeo said. "We believe that our work is already constraining Hezbollah's activities."
Pompeo said Iran gave Hezbollah as much as $700 million a year.
He said Washington would continue to use "all peaceful means possible" to pressure Hezbollah, an apparent reference to the sanctions that the U.S. has imposed over the years and are drying up the terrorist group's finances. Pompeo referred to comments made by Nasrallah earlier this month in which he urged supporters to donate money to the group.
The terrorist group's influence over Lebanese state institutions has expanded in the last year. Together with allies that view its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon, it won more than 70 of parliament's 128 seats in an election last year.
The group has taken three of the 30 portfolios in the government formed in January by Hariri, including the Health Ministry – the first time it has held a ministry with a significant budget.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV reported that Pompeo was in Beirut to "incite Lebanese against each other."
Appearing to give an upbeat assessment of U.S. mediation efforts to resolve a maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel, Bassil said Beirut had an opportunity to recover its rights with a "political and diplomatic victory."
He said, "We will make the necessary efforts with all parties internally to reach an honorable agreement for Lebanon that preserves its rights."
Beirut has an unresolved maritime border dispute with Israel over a sea area extending along the edge of three of Lebanon's southern energy blocks.
Lebanon has also previously warned its Mediterranean neighbors that a planned EastMed gas pipeline from Israel to the European Union must not be allowed to violate its maritime borders.
During his meeting with Berri, Pompeo "expressed hope that Lebanon would be able to join the other states of the Eastern Mediterranean in developing offshore resources in a manner of benefit to all the people of Lebanon", a state department spokesman said.
Bassil called on American companies to take part in forthcoming energy tenders in Lebanon.
President Aoun, speaking to Russian journalists ahead of a visit to Moscow later this month, said sanctions imposed on Hezbollah, Iran and Syria were negatively impacting the already fragile Lebanese economy.
"The negative effect of the sanctions on Hezbollah is hitting all Lebanese people as well as Lebanese banks," he said in remarks released later on Friday.
Earlier this week, Pompeo had said, "We'll spend a lot of time talking with the Lebanese government about how we can help them disconnect from the threat that Iran and Hezbollah present."
"Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. You ask how tough I am going to be. It is a terrorist organization. Period. Full stop," Pompeo said in Jerusalem on Thursday.
News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
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