Is Farm Lobby Endangering Foreign Policy?

Sunday, December 26, 2010
This is outrageous.

Excerpts from a New York Times special report:

U.S. Approved Business With Blacklisted Nations

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 [...]

"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 [...]

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 [...]

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.

Here's a list of companies given special permission by Treasury to bypass sanctions.