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U.S. presses Lebanon to prevent Iran, Syria sanctions evasions

President Michel Sleiman Meets United States Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Mr. Neal Wolin. Tuesday, September 11, 2012. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra/HO)

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s banking sector should remain alert to prevent Iranian and Syrian attempts to evade international sanctions, a top U.S. Treasury Department official said Tuesday after meeting with top Lebanese political officials and bankers.

“Deputy Secretary [Neal] Wolin further underscored the need for Lebanon to prevent abuse of the Lebanese financial sector by illicit actors and for Lebanese banks and regulatory authorities to remain vigilant against the evasion of sanctions by Iran and Syria,” a statement by the U.S. Embassy said.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s press office said discussions focused on the possible repercussions of the Syria crisis on Lebanon’s banking and economic sectors.

The statement added that Wolin thanked the Lebanese government for its continued cooperation with the U.S. banking sector.

Before meeting Mikati at the Grand Serail, Wolin held talks with President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Presidential Palace.

The U.S. Embassy statement said Wolin also expressed in his meetings his confidence in the ability of the Lebanese economy and financial system to weather the impact of the Syria crisis.

“He [Wolin] encouraged Lebanese officials to take steps to reduce Lebanon’s economic vulnerabilities and promote sustainable growth, including reducing the public debt burden and improving the regulatory and infrastructure system to promote private sector growth,” it said.

Wolin also met with Economy Minister Nicolas Nahhas and Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh on the first day of a regional trip which will also take him to Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh has dismissed on several occasions reports of money smuggling from Syria to Lebanese banks.

Salameh said in July that official numbers at the Central Bank indicate that Syrian deposits in Lebanon have decreased, not increased, since the start of the unrest in Syria 17 months ago.

The U.S. Treasury has intensified its scrutiny of Lebanon’s banks over the past few years in an attempt to crack down on alleged Hezbollah money laundering activities as well as Syrian and Iranian attempts to evade Western sanctions.

The U.S. Treasury blacklisted Lebanese Canadian Bank last year over charges of involvement in money laundering and connections to a terrorist group. Washington considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

Since 2001, Lebanese authorities have tightened supervision on accounts to ensure that there are no attempts to conduct illegal activities by forming the Special Investigation Commission to investigate suspected accounts and to lift banking secrecy if the need arose.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 12, 2012, on page 5.

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