Iran divestment campaign in trouble
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, Asia Times
14 July 2007
His star may be fading in Israel, but hawkish Likud leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is making steady progress in his other campaign - for divestment in Iran.
Since officially launching it in Boston last January, Netanyahu and his right-wing US supporters, such as Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, have managed to persuade a number of state and local governments in the United States to adopt the key objective of his campaign, that is, forcing US pension-fund companies to divest from firms doing business with Iran.
According to a recent article on the Jewish website Forward.com, Netanyahu's "freelance diplomacy is carried out with the knowledge and persuasion of [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and the Israeli foreign minister". However, there is little evidence that the Israeli government is doing much to apply the same pressure to Israel's own companies involved with the hundreds of international companies doing business with Iran.
Nor is there any sign that legislative initiatives by the states of Ohio and California have had any tangible results other than a mere "symbolic" one. In Ohio's case, the state's school pension fund is involved with some 44 companies doing trade with Iran and, as yet, none has been subjected to the theoretical pressure envisaged by the Iran divestment campaign.
Of course, it would be different if the federal government put some teeth into this campaign, in light of Senator Barack Obama's proposed Iran Sanction Enabling Act, but that is unlikely to happen any time soon, one reason being the resistance by pension investors to their policing by Big Brother, another the adverse potential consequences such as loss of income and backlashes from the "blacklisted" foreign companies.
The initial trial balloon is not likely to continue either, irrespective of the recent news that, following the city of Los Angeles, the Iranian-American mayor of Beverly Hills, California, has signed on to the Iran divestment objective by pitching it at city hall. Yet the fact is that opposition to it is growing. A recent Los Angeles Times report on this subject quoted the head of a school pension fund in California objecting to it and stating that such drastic measures are applied in extreme cases such as genocide.
But, of course, that is precisely what Netanyahu and company are feverishly trying to sell in the US and elsewhere, by claiming that the Iranian regime is "promoting genocide". That is simply not the case, and anyone mildly familiar with Iran's foreign policy would know it is a wild claim based on a deliberate caricature of Iran's intentions.
Meanwhile, European companies are allowed by the European Union to sign agreements with Iran in all sectors except nuclear power. As a result, a growing number of European firms are involved in the development of Iran's oil and gas. Case in point: the Austrian energy group OMV recently signed an US$18 billion gas deal, following the footsteps of France's Total, which, in partnership with Russia's Gazprom and Malaysia's Petronas, signed a $2 billion deal to develop the giant South Par field in 1997. Other examples are: Norway's Norsk Hydro ASA, which signed a $107 million contract in 2006, Italy's Ansaldo Energia SPA, Switzerland's EGL Inc, and a number of Spanish and Polish companies.
Overall, the Iranian Oil Ministry has been rather successful in attracting foreign investment - some $36 billion in the past couple of years alone - and this trend will likely continue given the energy sector's dire need for foreign investment and Iran's huge potential, which is too enticing to ignore.
Even politically the Iran divestment plan amounts to swimming against the current, seeking to diminish or even extinguish the few remaining threads of shared US-Iran economic interests, as if isolating Iran is either feasible or practical in today's globalized economy or that it will have better luck stopping Iran's nuclear program through isolation rather than proactive engagement.
Unfortunately for Netanyahu and allies such as Romney, the current visit to Iran by International Atomic Energy Agency officials appears to be making headway, promising to yield results in terms of Iran's transparency and compliance with the IAEA demands. This, together with the absence of any "smoking gun" confirming the "Iran is proliferating" alarms, seriously undermines the Iran divestment campaign of its main rationale. This comes precisely at a time when another campaign is gaining ground in the US and Europe: a formidable initiative in academia to boycott academics from Israel in response to that country's continued occupation policy vis-a-vis the repressed Palestinians.
In the US, in particular, with various church groups, such as the United Methodist Church, putting their weight behind the Israel divestment campaign, and former president Jimmy Carter lambasting Israel's policy as "worse than apartheid", the Netanyahu-led campaign actually runs the risk of indirectly causing greater interest in the academics' Israel boycott, notwithstanding Netanyahu's own record of strongly opposing Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. Netanyahu's prescribed reoccupation of Gaza would, of course, spell disaster not only for the much-suffering Palestinians but also for Israel, which has yet to formulate a coherent, long-term policy on the question of the occupation.
There is, therefore, an indirect connection between the Iran divestment and Israel divestment campaigns; the former is headed by an Israeli politician whose policies are decried by the latter, and the more Netanyahu persists in his campaign against Iran, the more people will be convinced of the need to heed the discreet call by the former US president to target Israel for sanctions that were once applied against apartheid South Africa.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.
Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd.
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