By Jim Lobe, Inter Press Service
WASHINGTON -- Neo-conservative hawks who championed the invasion of Iraq
are leading a new campaign to persuade state and local governments, as
well as other institutional investors, to "divest" their holdings in
foreign companies and U.S. overseas subsidiaries doing business in Iran.
While stressing that U.S. military action against Iran's nuclear program
should not be taken off the table, they call their divestment strategy the
"non-violent tool for countering the Iranian threat."
And, like the run-up to the Iraq war, the campaign has attracted
bipartisan support. Democrats, including those who strongly oppose the
George W. Bush administration's Iraq policy, see divestment, as well as
other proposed economic sanctions against Tehran, as a way to look "tough
on Iran" short of going to war.
"I'm not yet ready to suggest the use of military force . . . but one has
to stay on alert that that time could come sooner rather than later,"
James Woolsey, who served briefly as former President Bill Clinton's CIA
director, told an Ohio legislative committee this week in support of a
bill that would ban investments by the state's pension funds in companies
operating in Iran or in any other country the State Department lists as a
state sponsor of terrorism.
"Terror-free investing will not solve the problems . . . but I think it's
an important part of the comprehensive package," added Woolsey, a
prominent neo-conservative associated with the like-minded Foundation for
the Defense of Democracies (FDD).
The new campaign, the brainchild of the far-right Center for Security
Policy (CSP), is designed to put pressure on the Islamic Republic to
abandon its nuclear program, end its support of anti-Israel groups like
Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah, and "perhaps even to push (it)
toward collapse," according to FDD president Clifford May, by depriving it
of foreign investment and commercial ties with other countries.
According to a report released here Wednesday by the neo-conservative
American Enterprise Institute, which is collaborating with the CSP, Iran
has signed more than 150 billion dollars worth of investment and
commercial contracts with foreign companies based in more than 30
countries since 2000, including more than four billion dollars with U.S.
The initiative, which is modeled after the anti-apartheid divestment
campaign against South Africa of the 1980s, is also backed by major
pro-Israel and Jewish groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and
local Jewish Community Relations Councils whose membership is worried that
Israel will be threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran.
Potentially at stake are billions of dollars controlled by state pension
funds and other institutional investors that have invested money in
companies -- based mostly in Europe and Asia -- operating in Iran.
According to CSP, New York pension funds alone own nearly one billion
dollars of stock in three Fortune 500 companies tied to Iran.
"Iran's ability to fund its nuclear program and sponsor terrorism would
come to a grinding halt without revenue gained from foreign investors,"
according to CSP, which, along with the American Enterprise Institute and
FDD, was a leading advocate for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Last year, Missouri became the first state to order one of its pension
funds to divest its shares of all companies that do business with Iran and
other countries on the State Department's terror list. Last month, both
houses of the Florida legislature unanimously approved a bill banning the
investment of state funds in companies with commercial ties to Sudan and
Iran's energy sector.
Iran-related divestment bills are expected to be approved over the next
month by legislatures in Ohio, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and California,
according to Christopher Holton, the head of CSP's "Terror-Free Investing"
programme. Similar bills are also being considered in the legislatures of
Texas, Georgia, Maryland, and New Jersey and will soon be introduced in
Michigan and Illinois, he told IPS.
The sudden proliferation of state divestment measures comes amid renewed
efforts in Congress to tighten and expand the scope of existing
legislation against Iran.
Under the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), which, among other provisions,
bans U.S. companies from doing business in Iran, the president is required
to impose a range of economic sanctions against foreign companies that
invested more than 20 million dollars a year in Iran's energy sector,
which accounts for about 80 percent of its foreign-exchange earnings.
The same law, however, permits the president to waive such penalties if he
deems it in the national interest. Worried that imposing sanctions would
anger key U.S. allies, President Bush has consistently exercised his
waiver authority, as his predecessor, Bill Clinton, did before him.
But, as tensions with Iran have increased since the election of President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nearly two years ago, pressure, especially from
neo-conservative groups and the hawkish leadership of the so-called
"Israel Lobby," which includes the Christian Right, to take stronger
action has grown.
Congress is currently considering several bills that, if passed, would
reduce or eliminate the president's waiver authority and include language
encouraging divestment drives at the state level.
The administration, which is at least rhetorically committed to working
through the U.N. Security Council to impose multilateral sanctions against
Iran to rein in its nuclear program, appears ambivalent on both expanding
ISA and on the divestment campaign.
On the one hand, State and Treasury Department officials, using the threat
of tougher Congressional action, have informally -- and with some success
-- pressed foreign banks, companies, and governments, to forgo or freeze
new investments in Iran's energy sector over the past year.
On the other hand, the administration has opposed the pending legislation
both because it would reduce the president's flexibility in conducting
foreign policy and because imposing sanctions will almost certainly
produce a backlash in foreign capitals that would undermine Washington's
ability to sustain a united front with its allies and other powers against
Iran at the U.N. and in other forums.
"We could not support modifications to (ISA) now being circulated in
Congress that would turn the full weight of sanctions not against Iran but
against our allies that are instrumental in our coalition against Iran,"
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told a Senate Committee in late
In this position, the administration has been strongly supported by the
National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), a business lobby created by many of
the nation's biggest corporations, which has long opposed both unilateral
U.S. trade sanctions and state divestment initiatives.
"On one hand, we're asking Europe, Russia, China, and Japan to work
together with us on this, and, on the other hand, we're beating their
companies over the head with a stick," NFTC President William Reinsch told
In a letter to Ohio lawmakers considering divestment legislation, Reinsch
made much the same argument, noting also that, in a case brought by the
NFTC, a federal court judge recently struck down as unconstitutional a
Sudan divestment law in Illinois on the grounds that it interfered with
the federal government's ability to conduct foreign policy and regulate
In his weekly column in the *Washington Times* published shortly after
Reinsch sent his letter, CSP's president, Frank Gaffney, denounced Reinsch
as "Terror's lobbyist," charging that the NFTC "favors doing business with
America's enemies and runs interference for those determined to do so."
"Iran is already in difficult economic straits; if fully brought to bear,
the power of America's capital markets could mightily affect corporate
behaviour, undermining -- hopefully, helping to bring down -- the
mullahocracy in Iran," wrote Gaffney.