December 24, 2010
By Jo Becker
Despite sanctions and trade embargoes, over the past decade the United States government has allowed American companies to do billions of dollars in business with Iran and other countries blacklisted as state sponsors of terrorism, an examination by The New York Times has found.
At the behest of a host of companies — from Kraft Food and Pepsi to some of the nation’s largest banks — a little-known office of the Treasury Department has granted nearly 10,000 licenses for deals involving countries that have been cast into economic purgatory, beyond the reach of American business.
Most of the licenses were approved under a decade-old law mandating that agricultural and medical humanitarian aid be exempted from sanctions. But the law, pushed by the farm lobby and other industry groups, was written so broadly that allowable humanitarian aid has included cigarettes, Wrigley’s gum, Louisiana hot sauce, weight-loss remedies, body-building supplements and sports rehabilitation equipment sold to the institute that trains Iran’s Olympic athletes.
Hundreds of other licenses were approved because they passed a litmus test: They were deemed to serve American foreign policy goals. And many clearly do, among them deals to provide famine relief in North Korea or to improve Internet connections — and nurture democracy — in Iran. But the examination also found cases in which the foreign-policy benefits were considerably less clear.
In one instance, an American company was permitted to bid on a pipeline job that would have helped Iran sell natural gas to Europe, even though the United States opposes such projects. Several other American businesses were permitted to deal with foreign companies believed to be involved in terrorism or weapons proliferation. In one such case, involving equipment bought by a medical waste disposal plant in Hawaii, the government was preparing to deny the license until an influential politician intervened.
In an interview, the Obama administration’s point man on sanctions, Stuart A. Levey, said that focusing on the exceptions “misses the forest for the trees.” Indeed, the exceptions represent only a small counterweight to the overall force of America’s trade sanctions, which are among the toughest in the world. Now they are particularly focused on Iran, where on top of a broad embargo that prohibits most trade, the United States and its allies this year adopted a new round of sanctions that have effectively shut Iran off from much of the international financial system.
“No one can doubt that we are serious about this,” Mr. Levey said.
But as the administration tries to press Iran even harder to abandon its nuclear program — officials this week announced several new sanctions measures — some diplomats and foreign affairs experts worry that by allowing the sale of even small-ticket items with no military application, the United States muddies its moral and diplomatic authority.
“It’s not a bad thing to grant exceptions if it represents a conscious policy decision to give countries an incentive,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who oversaw sanctions policy for the Clinton administration when the humanitarian-aid law was passed. “But when you create loopholes like this that you can drive a Mack truck through, you are giving countries something for nothing, and they just laugh in their teeth. I think there have been abuses.”
What’s more, in countries like Iran where elements of the government have assumed control over large portions of the economy, it is increasingly difficult to separate exceptions that help the people from those that enrich the state. Indeed, records show that the United States has approved the sale of luxury food items to chain stores owned by blacklisted banks, despite requirements that potential purchasers be scrutinized for just such connections.
Enforcement of America’s sanctions rests with Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which can make exceptions with guidance from the State Department. The Treasury office resisted disclosing information about the licenses, but after The Times filed a federal Freedom of Information lawsuit, the government agreed to turn over a list of companies granted exceptions and, in a little more than 100 cases, underlying files explaining the nature and details of the deals. The process took three years, and the government heavily redacted many documents, saying they contained trade secrets and personal information. Still, the files offer a snapshot — albeit a piecemeal one — of a system that at times appears out of sync with its own licensing policies and America’s goals abroad.
In some cases, licensing rules failed to keep pace with changing diplomatic circumstances. For instance, American companies were able to import cheap blouses and raw material for steel from North Korea because restrictions loosened when that government promised to renounce its nuclear weapons program and were not recalibrated after the agreement fell apart.
Mr. Levey, a Treasury under secretary who held the same job in the Bush administration, pointed out that the United States did far less business with Iran than did China or Europe; in the first quarter of this year, 0.02 percent of American exports went to Iran. And while it is “a fair policy question” to ask whether Congress’s definition of humanitarian aid is overly broad, he said, the exception has helped the United States argue that it opposes Iran’s government, not its people. That, in turn, has helped build international support for the tightly focused financial sanctions.
Beyond that, he and the licensing office’s director, Adam Szubin, said the agency’s other, case-by-case, determinations often reflected a desire to balance sanctions policy against the realities of the business world, where companies may unwittingly find themselves in transactions involving blacklisted entities.
“I haven’t seen any licenses that I thought we should have done differently,” Mr. Szubin said.
Behind a 2000 Law
For all the speechifying about humanitarian aid that attended its passage, the 2000 law allowing agricultural and medical exceptions to sanctions was ultimately the product of economic stress and political pressure. American farmers, facing sharp declines in commodity prices and exports, hoped to offset their losses with sales to blacklisted countries.
The law defined allowable agricultural exports as any product on a list maintained by the Agriculture Department, which went beyond traditional humanitarian aid like seed and grain and included products like beer, soda, utility poles and more loosely defined categories of “food commodities” and “food additives.”
Even before the law’s final passage, companies and their lobbyists inundated the licensing office with claims that their products fit the bill.
Take, for instance, chewing gum, sold in a number of blacklisted countries by Mars Inc., which owns Wrigley’s. “We debated that one for a month. Was it food? Did it have nutritional value? We concluded it did,” Hal Eren, a former senior sanctions adviser at the licensing office, recalled before pausing and conceding, “We were probably rolled on that issue by outside forces.”
While Cuba was the primary focus of the initial legislative push, Iran, with its relative wealth and large population, was also a promising prospect. American exports, virtually nonexistent before the law’s passage, have totaled more than $1.7 billion since.
In response to questions for this article, companies argued that they were operating in full accordance with American law.
Henry Lapidos, export manager for the American Pop Corn Company, acknowledged that calling the Jolly Time popcorn he sold in Sudan and Iran a humanitarian good was “pushing the envelope,” though he did give it a try. “It depends on how you look at it — popcorn has fibers, which are helpful to the digestive system,” he explained, before switching to a different tack. “What’s the harm?” he asked, adding that he didn’t think Iranian soldiers “would be taking microwavable popcorn” to war.
Even the sale of benign goods can benefit bad actors, though, which is why the licensing office and State Department are required to check the purchasers of humanitarian aid products for links to terrorism. But that does not always happen.
In its application to sell salt substitutes, marinades, food colorings and cake sprinkles in Iran, McCormick & Co. listed a number of chain stores that planned to buy its products. A quick check of the Web site of one store, Refah, revealed that its major investors were banks on an American blacklist. The government of Tehran owns Shahrvand, another store listed in the license. A third chain store, Ghods, draws many top officials from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.
The licensing office’s director, Mr. Szubin, said that given his limited resources, they were better spent on stopping weapons technology from reaching Iran. Even if the connections in the McCormick case had come to light, he said, he still might have had to approve the license: the law requires him to do so unless he can prove that the investors engaged in terrorist activities own more than half of a company.
“Are we checking end users? Yes,” he said. “But are we doing corporate due diligence on every Iranian importer? No.”
A McCormick spokesman, Jim Lynn, said, “We were not aware of the information you shared with us and are looking into it.”
Beyond the humanitarian umbrella, the agency has wide discretion to make case-by-case exceptions. Sometimes, political influence plays a role in those deliberations, as in a case involving Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and a medical-waste disposal plant in Honolulu.
On July 28, 2003, the plant’s owner, Samuel Liu, ordered 200 graphite electrodes from a Chinese government-owned company, China Precision Machinery Import Export Corporation. In an interview, Mr. Liu said he had chosen the company because the electrodes available in the United States were harder to find and more expensive. Two days later, the Bush administration barred American citizens from doing business with the Chinese company, which had already been penalized repeatedly for providing missile technology to Pakistan and Iran.
By the time Customs seized the electrodes on Nov. 5, waste was piling up in the sun. Nor did prospects look good for Mr. Liu’s application to the licensing office seeking to do an end run around the sanctions. On Nov. 21, a State Department official, Ralph Palmiero, recommended that the agency deny the request since the sanctions explicitly mandated the “termination of existing contracts” like Mr. Liu’s.
That is when Senator Inouye’s office stepped in. While his electrodes were at sea, Mr. Liu had made his first ever political contribution, giving the senator’s campaign $2,000. Mr. Liu says the timing was coincidental, that he was simply feeling more politically inclined. Records show that an Inouye aide called the licensing office on Mr. Liu’s behalf the same day that Mr. Palmiero recommended denying the application. The senator himself wrote two days later.
Mr. Inouye’s spokesman, Peter Boylan, said the contribution had “no impact whatsoever” on the senator’s actions, which he said were motivated solely by concern for the community’s health and welfare.
The pressure appears to have worked. The following day, the licensing office’s director at the time asked the State Department to reconsider in an e-mail that prominently noted the senator’s interest. A few days later, the State Department found that the purchase qualified for a special “medical and humanitarian” exception.
The license was issued Dec. 10. Two months later, Mr. Liu sent the senator another $2,000 contribution, the maximum allowable. Mr. Levey said he could not comment on the details of a decision predating his tenure. But he noted that sanctions against the Chinese company had since been toughened, and added, “Certainly this transaction wouldn’t be authorized today.”
Mr. Liu’s license is hardly the only one to raise questions about how the government determines that a license serves American foreign policy.
There is also, for instance, the case of Irisl, an Iranian government-owned shipping line that the United States blacklisted in 2008, charging that because it routinely used front companies and misleading terms to shroud shipments of banned arms and other technology with military uses, it was impossible to tell whether its shipments were “licit or illicit.”
Less than nine months earlier, the licensing office had permitted a Japanese subsidiary of Citibank to carry out the very type of transaction it was now warning against. Records show that the bank had agreed to confirm a letter of credit guaranteeing payment to a Malaysian exporter upon delivery of what were described as split-system air-conditioners to a Turkish importer. Though the government had yet to blacklist Irisl, sanctions rules already prohibited dealings with Iranian companies. So when the bank learned that the goods were to be shipped aboard the Irisl-owned Iran Ilam, it sought a license.
The license was granted, even though the Treasury Department’s investigation of Irisl was well under way and the United States had reason to be suspicious of the Iran Ilam in particular; that summer, the ship had attracted the attention of the intelligence community when it delivered a lathe used to make nuclear centrifuge parts from China to Iran, according to government officials who requested anonymity to speak about a previously unpublicized intelligence matter.
Mr. Szubin said that since the blacklisting of Irisl, his agency had forced banks to extricate themselves from such transactions. But at the time the Citibank license was issued, his agency regularly issued licenses in cases like this one, where at the time of the transaction, the bank had no way of knowing that Irisl was involved and where the shipping line would be paid by a foreign third party anyway. To depart from the norm, he said, risked facing a lawsuit charging unfair treatment and tipping Irisl off that it was under investigation.
But if the government has sometimes been willing to grant American businesses a break, some companies have recently decided that the cost to their reputations outweighs the potential profit.
General Electric, which has been one of the leading recipients of licenses, says it has stopped all but humanitarian business in countries listed as sponsors of terrorism and has promised to donate its profits from Iran to charity.
As Joshua Kamens, the head of a company called Anndorll, put it, he knew from almost the minute he applied for a license to sell sugar in Iran that “it would come back to haunt me.” Although he received the go-ahead, he decided to back out of the deal.
“I’m an American,” he said. “Even though it’s legal to sell that type of product, I didn’t want to have any trade with a country like Iran.”