(CNSNews.com) – On his weekend visit to Lebanon, which he portrayed beforehand as “cleaning up for what the previous administration failed to do,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeatedly and unequivocally spoke out against Hezbollah and the Shi’ite terrorist group’s sponsor, Iran.
Despite pushback from his Lebanese interlocutors, Pompeo urged Lebanon to shun a group that forms part of the national government, despite the fact that its very existence as an armed militia violates U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“The Lebanese people should no longer be made to suffer for the political and military ambitions of an outlaw nation [Iran] and its terrorist affiliate,” Pompeo said. “It will take courage for the nation of Lebanon to stand up to Hezbollah’s criminality, terror, and threats.”
He spoke those words alongside his Lebanese counterpart, Gebran Bassil, the head of a Maronite faction that is closely aligned with Hezbollah, and who has long defended the terrorist group’s participation in the political sphere.
Pompeo pledged that the U.S. would “continue to use all peaceful means” to counter Hezbollah and Iran.
He reviewed Hezbollah’s conduct at home and abroad, from stockpiling tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Israel to expending the lives and resources of its constituents in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, to global drug smuggling networks.
And he touched on its deadly history of terrorism inside Lebanon itself.
“As I traveled from the airport, I was reminded powerfully of this past suffering,” he said. “I passed the site where 35 years ago the predecessors of today’s Hezbollah murdered U.S. Marines on a peacekeeping mission,” he said.
“I passed near the site of the U.S. Embassy where the same terrorist thugs killed America’s diplomats as they worked. I viewed the memorial to Mr. Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, brutally assassinated for his courageous opposition to cruel tyranny of the Assad regime over Lebanon.”
The suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 killed 241 U.S. servicemen and six civilians.
The bombing of the U.S. Embassy that same year, killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, eight CIA operatives among them. Another bombing targeting the U.S. Embassy annex, also in 1983, killed 24 people, including two Americans military personnel.
Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed, along with 21 others, in a 2005 car bombing in downtown Beirut. A U.N.-backed special tribunal later indicted Hezbollah members in connection with the murders. The group rejected the accusations and refused to cooperate.
Speaking ahead of Pompeo, Bassil said through an interpreter he had made clear in their meeting that “Hezbollah is a political party, that it is not terrorist,” and that its representatives elected to parliament had received “huge political support.”
Countries wishing to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group may do so, but “it is not our classification,” he said, adding that the government did not want to allow that difference to “preclude good relations” with the U.S.
Bassil has in the past argued that designating Hezbollah as terrorists was incompatible with the Arab Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism, a 1998 document which states that “struggle by whatever means, including armed struggle, against foreign occupation and aggression” does not constitute terrorism. Hezbollah claims to be fighting against Israeli occupation.
According to State Department readouts, Pompeo raised Hezbollah during his meetings with President Michel Aoun and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, also both allies of Hezbollah.
He also shared U.S. concerns about Hezbollah and Iran with Prime Minister Saad Hariri – Rafik Hariri’s son – and with Lebanese Armed Forces commander General Joseph Aoun.
Hezbollah is expected to respond to Pompeo’s criticism when its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, delivers a speech on Tuesday.
Hezbollah’s media office said Sunday that Nasrallah, in a speech to be aired on the group’s Al Manar television network, would “tackle latest developments in Lebanon and the region.”
Al Manar, meanwhile, charged in an article on its website that Pompeo had visited Lebanon to “convey Israeli demands and conditions.”
His aim, it said, was to “provoke the Lebanese against Hezbollah resistance which has protected the country from the Zionist and the takfiri [Sunni extremist] enemies.”
Instead, the article said, Lebanon had showed Pompeo “and the entire world how power can never defeat national dignity and pride.”
It concluded by mocking the fact Pompeo had worn a yellow tie during his meetings – the color of the Hezbollah flag which, it said, has consistently been “squeezing the U.S. plots in Lebanon and the whole region.”
Pompeo’s approach in speaking about Hezbollah contrasted with that taken by recent predecessors.
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson drew criticism a year ago when he said, on the eve of the visit to Lebanon, that Hezbollah’s influence there was “unhelpful,” then added, “We also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon.”
Though he spoke out against Hezbollah, former Secretary of State John Kerry oversaw a nuclear deal with Iran which, he and others in the Obama administration conceded, would likely have a beneficial financial impact on Hezbollah
When the Hezbollah-backed Aoun was elected president in 2016, Kerry phoned to congratulate him, and a State Department statement welcoming the vote did not mention the terrorist group (although it did refer to U.N. Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701, which call for Hezbollah to be disarmed and disbanded.)