by Jim Lobe
Will a President Trump intend to put U.S. business first and preserve and expand the U.S. manufacturing workforce as part of his plan to make America great again? Or will he hold to the reflexive anti-Iran positions of the Republican Congressional majority, Sheldon Adelson, and the neoconservatives, including the NeverTrumpers who, with Democrats marginalized across the board, are already seeking ways to gain influence with whomever the president-elect chooses to advise him?
That’s the question that will likely come to the fore next week when the House of Representatives is likely to vote on legislation that would effectively ban Boeing from exporting at least 80 planes to Iran’s national air carrier. The sale is part of a deal that could total as much as $25 billion and employ many thousands of skilled workers across the United States.
The House Rules Committee, led by the committee’s trade panel chair Bill Huizenga (R-MI), has made action of the bill priority number one when Congress returns from its long election recess on Monday. A floor vote could come as early as next Wednesday. The bill, which will likely be merged with another that would prohibit the Export-Import Bank from helping finance any deals involving Iran, was drafted in response to the Treasury Department’s approval earlier this fall of Boeing to sell and/or lease commercial aircraft to Iran Air. Just last week, Iran’s deputy transport minister said that the final details of the deal should be worked out “within days.”
Boeing employs 150,000 workers in the U.S. The commercial aviation division, which is most relevant to the pending Iran Air deal, employs 85,000 workers (not counting administrative staff). As the biggest single U.S. exporter of manufactured goods, Boeing has thousands of workers in each of nine states, notably Washington State (with about half its U.S. workforce) and California, but also red states including Alabama, Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. It also has hundreds of staff at its corporate headquarters in Illinois, which is one reason why the outgoing senator, Mark Kirk—otherwise a staunch AIPAC supporter behind virtually every effort to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal—never took a clear stand on the Boeing sale. In the past 12 months, the company has paid nearly $50 billion to more than 13,600 businesses, supporting an additional 1.5 million supplier-related jobs across the country. So, if Trump wants to preserve and expand the U.S. manufacturing base, supporting a deal of this scale with this particular company would seem to be very attractive, particularly because Boeing itself has been shedding a significant share of its workforce over the last months due to a dearth of new orders.
Of course, Trump has repeatedly denounced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, vowing from time to time to either discard or renegotiate the nuclear deal. Back in June, when Boeing entered into formal talks over the sale, his campaign decried it, insisting that “the world’s largest state sponsor of terror …would not have been allowed to enter into these negotiations with Boeing without Clinton’s disastrous Iran Nuclear Deal.” But, as noted by Foreign Policy’s John Hudson at the time, Trump has also complained that one of the reasons the JCPOA was so “disastrous” was because it removed sanctions on Boeing’s chief rival, Airbus (which has entered into a somewhat bigger deal with Iran Air), while retaining Washington’s unilateral sanctions that prevented Boeing from selling planes. “Iran is going to buy 116 jetliners with a small part of the $150 billion [sic] we are giving them…but they won’t buy from U.S., rather than Airbus,” he tweeted in January.
“They bought 118 Airbus planes, not Boeing planes,” he elaborated on CNN. “They’re spending all of their money in Europe. It’s so unfair and it’s so incompetent. We’re handing over $150 billion [sic]. We get nothing,” he complained to Anderson Cooper.
This was, of course, before the Treasury Department issued the license to Boeing in September that made an agreement possible. Since then, Trump, like Kirk, has not expressed a firm opinion on the deal even while he has continued denouncing the JCPOA.
In the absence of a clear statement in opposition from the president-elect, the pending legislation will easily pass the House this week if it comes up for a vote. But it’s not yet clear what the Senate will do, and no doubt some key senators in the Republican majority will be looking for guidance from Trump Tower.
One very big question is what the larger U.S. business community will do and, if they do anything at all, how Trump will react. So far, Boeing has been flying pretty much solo in gaining approval to negotiate with Iran. Most big U.S. companies share Trump’s complaint about the lack of advantages given them by the JCPOA compared to their foreign competition, and offering more exemptions from U.S. sanctions would have been a political bridge too far for the Obama administration. With Trump now bound for the White House, the main challenge for groups like The Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Foreign Trade Council at this point is how to persuade Trump to modify his positions on trade and immigration, which of course are much more important in business terms than Iran.
Nonetheless, the Boeing deal could be a very important precedent for U.S.-based multinational corporations. If Trump indicated his support for the deal consistent with his commitments to creating jobs and expanding the economy, it would boost not only those companies that see in Iran a huge untapped market for their goods and services. It would also signal a major advance in one of big businesses’ long-term struggles: fighting unilateral U.S. economic sanctions enacted by Congress. If Boeing prevails, other companies have a lot to gain.
So, Trump faces a key Iran-related decision. Does he side with U.S. business and workers in the interests of “America First”? Or does he listen to knee-jerk, pro-Likud Iran hawks who argue that Boeing aircraft could be used to transport terrorists but whose real agenda is to destroy an agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program, even at the risk of alienating Washington’s NATO allies and provoking another major war in the Greater Middle East that will cost the U.S. Treasury many billions of dollars?