Kerry says Iran is ‘open for business’

Printed from:

( – Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday rejected the notion that it’s America’s job to promote business with Iran following the nuclear deal, but again underscored that the U.S. government is not standing in the way of European companies doing business with Tehran.

Except in the case of those companies and individuals that remain designated by the U.S. government for non nuclear-related sanctions, Iran is “open for business,” he said in London.

“Banks in Europe are allowed to open accounts for Iran, banks in Europe are allowed to do business, banks in Europe can fund programs, lend money,” Kerry told reporters ahead of a meeting with European bankers focused on Iran.”

“That’s absolutely open for business, as long as it’s not a designated entity, period. Very simple.”

Iranian officials, led by Kerry’s counterpart and nuclear negotiating partner Javad Zarif, have been complaining bitterly about European companies’ reluctance to do business with Iran now that many sanctions have been lifted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.

But Kerry said European firms in some cases were using U.S. sanctions as an “excuse” for not seeking opportunities in Iran.

“Businesses should not use the United States as an excuse if they don’t want to do business or if they don’t see a good business deal,” he said. “They shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, we can’t do it because [of] the United States.’ That’s just not fair. That’s not accurate. And we sometimes get used as an excuse in this process.”

European banks, he repeated, “are absolutely free to open accounts for Iran, trade, exchange money, facilitate a legitimate business agreement, bankroll it, lend money. All of those things are absolutely open, permissible.”

A reporter asked Kerry why it was the job of the U.S. to advocate for companies to do business in Iran.

“It’s not our job to sell them on doing business,” he replied. “It’s our job to make clear to them what the rules are, that’s all. I mean, we’re not telling people what to go do, but we are telling people what they’re allowed to do, and there seems to be some confusion about that.”

“Iran has a right to the benefits of the agreement they signed up to,” Kerry said.

Addressing lawmakers in Tehran at the weekend, Zarif complained that Iran’s “enemies, especially that Zionists,” were trying hard “to deter foreign investors from participating in Iran.”

“Consequently, we must promote the fact that Iran is the safest and most profitable country for investment,” he said.

Sanctions overlap

U.S., U.N., and multilateral nuclear-related sanctions were lifted with effect from the JCPOA’s “implementation day” last January 16, but numerous other U.S. sanctions remain in place, including measures imposed in response to human rights violations, the regime’s sponsorship of terrorism, and ballistic missile activities.

They include direct sanctions against more than 200 designated Iranian companies and individuals – according to a top Treasury official – and “secondary” sanctions, or those targeting firms in third countries that do business with designated Iranian entities.

Complicating the situation is the fact that some of the U.S. sanctions overlap, targeting both nuclear and non-nuclear issues.

The 2010 Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, for example, takes aim at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and those that do business with the IRGC, for its involvement in the nuclear program as well as international terrorism and rights abuses.

The 2012 Iran Threat Reduction Act imposes sanctions in response to support for the nuclear program, rights abuses and/or international terrorism.

Further, none of the U.S. measures targeting the IRGC and its affiliates have been waived or suspended as a result of JCPOA implementation. But the IRGC is suspected of having interests in many sectors of the Iranian economy, and not all the links are publicly known.

‘Myriad endemic risks’

A bipartisan lobby group opposed to the JCPOA has launched a campaign warning foreign companies about the risks – financial, legal and reputational – in doing business with Tehran.

United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) said Tuesday it has sent dozens of letters to leading corporations, “warning of the myriad endemic risks involving Iran,” and that it plans to contact hundreds more in the coming months.

Those contacted already include corporations actively considering opportunities in Iran, including General Electric, Fiat Chrysler, Siemens, Canadian aircraft maker Bombardier and the Danish container operator Maersk.

UANI said it has also been in touch with major South Korean companies. South Korean President Park Geun-hye visited Iran early this month, accompanied by more than 200 business executives. Agreements for construction and energy projects worth $45.6 billion were signed.

In an earlier open letter to businesses, UANI warned it was risky doing business in Iran post-JCPOA.

Noting the IRGC’s penetration of many sectors of Iran’s economy, the letter said doing business in Iran without also doing business with the IRGC would be virtually impossible.

“This risk is only further amplified because the IRGC routinely operates through an extensive network of front companies that mask the IRGC’s involvement,” it said. “An international firm active in Iran could therefore easily conduct or facilitate transactions with the IRGC or one of its affiliates or front companies, potentially triggering costly penalties under U.S. sanctions.”

UANI also cautioned firms about the risk to their reputation of doing business with a regime that sponsors terrorism, violates its citizens’ rights, and “remains an international outlaw and force for instability.”

UANI was founded in 2008 by Mark Wallace, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., former CIA Director James Woolsey, former U.S. Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross and the late assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke.

Others associated with it include former CIA acting director Michael Morell and former Attorney-General Michael Mukasey. Its chairman is former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman.

Speaking to CNBC last Thursday, Lieberman said UANI was asking companies mulling business with Iran to “wait a second. Do you really want to do business in this country?”

Asked about the argument that doing business with Iran is precisely what is needed to help effect change, Lieberman said one had but to look at the conduct of Iranian officials, from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei down, since the JCPOA was concluded.

“There’s no indication that post the Iran nuclear agreement this radical, expansionist, terroristic administration in Tehran has changed,” he said.

— Written by Patrick Goodenough