Trump administration hits Hezbollah with new sanctions

Last Updated Feb 2, 2018 1:13 PM EST

WASHINGTON -- Taking aim at Iran's global footprint, the Trump administration on Friday hit six people and seven businesses linked to Hezbollah with terror sanctions, calling it "the first wave" in a pressure campaign that will escalate throughout the year. The sanctions aim to squeeze Hezbollah financier Adham Tabaja, who is already designated by the U.S. as a global terrorist, by freezing out a network of companies in Lebanon, Ghana, Liberia and elsewhere. 

The Trump administration said companies and their executives act on Tabaja's behalf, forming "conduits" of funding for the Lebanon-based militant group.

"We will be relentless in identifying, exposing, and dismantling Hezbollah's financial support networks globally," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

Two Trump administration officials said the "screamingly urgent problem" is that Hezbollah is involved in conflicts that could escalate into something truly damaging, and the threat to Israel is heightening, CBS News White House and senior foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Brennan reports.

The officials said there are "dozens" of other networks like this that will be targeted with future U.S. sanctions.   

The campaign comes as the Trump administration works to undermine Iran's ability to stoke unrest and expand its influence throughout the region. Senior Trump administration officials said the U.S. estimates Iran sends Hezbollah about $700 million per year, arguing that Hezbollah has become the Iranian government's primary tool to project its power in the Arabic-speaking world.

President Trump has called on Europe to designate all of Hezbollah, including its political arm, a terrorist organization. The GCC, Canadians, Dutch and the Arab League have done so, but the European Union and others have not.  

Formed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 1982 to fight Israel's invasion of Beirut, Hezbollah has morphed into a powerful political player in Lebanon, and is a member of the Mediterranean nation's coalition government. The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization and has hit the group with sanctions before.

More recently, the U.S. has grown concerned about the group's involvement in other conflicts, including in neighboring Syria, where it's sent thousands of fighters to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad. U.S. officials said Hezbollah is also helping train and advice Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen who are being pummeled by a Saudi-led coalition supported by the United States.

Trump officials said more sanctions would be coming against Hezbollah, the results of an investigation into the group that Mr. Trump ordered last summer. They said there were "dozens" more financial networks linked to Hezbollah that could be targeted. The officials weren't authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The first wave of penalties target Al-Inmaa Engineering Contracting, a company run by Tabaja and based in Hezbollah's stronghold south of Beirut. The construction company is mostly active in predominantly Shiite areas in Lebanon such as Beirut's southern suburbs and the southern market town of Nabatiyeh.

"We will no longer allow corrupt Hezbollah and other Iranian regime cronies to hide their crimes behind front companies," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Twitter Friday.

The other companies named Friday are mostly based in Africa, where tens of thousands of Lebanese -- many of them Shiites -- have been living for decades. Most of the individuals targeted had not been publicly known to be Hezbollah financiers and are not prominent names in Lebanon.

The sanctions freeze any assets in the U.S. and bar Americans from dealing with those being sanctioned.