NYT: U.S. Companies Don’t Like Trade Restrictions

Cigarettes, Wrigley’s chewing gum, Louisiana hot sauce, weight-loss remedies, body-building equipment, and sports rehabilitation equipment. These are just some of the items which, thanks to a lengthy investigative article published by The New York Times, we now know are exempt from the “biting” sanctions which the Barack Obama administration has imposed against Iran.

The Times explains that:

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.

But Jo Becker, Ron Nixon and William Yong’s Times article never produces any evidence to suggest that trade with Iran — or any blacklisted country — has actually worked against U.S. interests of pressuring the Iranian leadership to end its alleged nuclear program.

Stuart Levey, the Obama administration’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at Treasury, calls out the absurdity of the reporters’ forensic level interest in sanctions loopholes. He tells The Times that their focus “misses the forest for the trees.”

And the American Popcorn company defended itself against its decision to avail itself of sanctions loopholes.

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.

The reporters didn’t find any solid evidence that the sanctions loopholes had directly helped either the Iranian nuclear program or the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC). But they did track down details of how a medical-waste disposal plant in Honolulu may have exerted political influence to gain an exception for its contract for 200 graphite electrodes from a Chinese government-owned company which had been penalized for providing missile technology to Pakistan and Iran.

The Times put a lot of effort into proving, once again, that people in capitalist societies have an incentive, and some would say a responsibility, to seek access to foreign markets. None of the companies listed in the article are exporting weapons to Iran or North Korea, an activity that might be of legitimate concern to U.S. national interests.  Instead, they were participating in free trade. Iran, an active member of the global economy whether the West likes it or not, presents a desirable market for U.S. companies wishing to export products.

While The Times is quick to portray this trade in a negative light — they failed to mention that Israel, a country whose leadership has repeatedly called Iran an “existential threat” continues to import Iranian marble. So the main takeaway from the article appears to be that U.S. companies have no particular desire to curtail their foreign trade with Iran.

The ongoing lesson of the attempts to impose sanctions on Iran are that Iran is more than capable of substituting its Western trade relationships with trade from South America, Africa and Asia, and that no one outside of a small community of Iran-hawks and sanctions architects appear very concerned about the limited trade between the U.S. and Iran.

Perhaps this ongoing trade with Iran is a function of participating in a globalized economy. Sanctions are simply more difficult to implement and nearly impossible to enforce in an increasingly interconnected global trading system.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.