An influential American lobby group that tried to block the Iran nuclear deal is launching an international campaign to discourage big western companies from doing business in the country, warning that they could fall foul of remaining sanctions.
United Against Nuclear Iran, a bipartisan group which was at the forefront of the campaign against last year’s landmark nuclear agreement, will use a mixture of newspaper adverts and public letters to put pressure on multinationals that have either returned to Iran since the deal or are thinking of doing so.
The ramped-up lobbying against business with Iran comes at a sensitive time when Tehran is already complaining loudly about what it believes to be the lack of economic benefits it has received so far from the agreement.
Western diplomats say that the tensions over sanctions relief have so far not reached a point that could undermine the deal but acknowledge that Iran feels it has been short-changed. John Kerry, US secretary of state, has met his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif twice in the past fortnight to discuss how the agreement isbeing implemented.
UANI plans to send letters warning about the continued risks of doing business with Iran to 140 international companies who are pursuing business there, 30 of which have already been written. It will also publish a series of newspaper and television adverts in Europe this week ahead of a major conference in Zurich to encourage trade and investment in Iran.
“As they get on a plane to Tehran, companies need to have a hard look at the business risk,” said Mark Wallace, a former US ambassador to the UN who is chief executive of UANI. “The risk profile has not fundamentally changed.”
Mr Wallace pointed to US sanctions that are still in place over Iranian human rights violations, support of terrorism, and its ballistic missile programme. Any company connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards is also still covered by sanctions.
Responding to the charge that he was using public pressure on multinationals to try to unpick the Iran deal, Mr Wallace said that the agreement did offer “limited sanctions relief” to Iran “but in terms of a flood of businesses going back in, that was never the idea”. It was a risk for companies to be associated, he said, with “the country that is the biggest state-sponsor of terrorism”.
Since the nuclear deal was implemented in January, European banks have been particularly reluctant to do business that involves Iran for fear that they will be caught up in the remaining sanctions and restrictions.
Iran’s supreme leader and ultimate decision maker, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has accused Washington of breaking the nuclear agreement, last week blamed the US for preventing his country’s reconnection to the global banking system.
“On paper, they [Americans] write that banks can work with Iran but in practice they fan Iranophobia by claiming Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and could face sanctions [again],” he said. “This sends a message of ‘do not do business with Iran’ and as a result foreign investors and banks are scared of working with Iran.”
Peter Wittig, German ambassador to the US, said: “We always believed that some trade resumption was part of the nuclear deal. This is what sanctions relief means.” Although the Iranians argued that they had not received the economic benefits they were promised, he said, “we are not yet arriving at a breaking point”.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and a strong supporter of the nuclear deal, said that a “successful campaign that puts a stigma on doing business with Iran would be a de facto sanction”.
However, he said that the campaign would only have a genuine impact if it was accompanied by more “harsh rhetoric by the Republican candidate that gives companies the impression that the Iran deal is not solid yet” and continued uncertainty about how the remaining sanctions will be applied.
The companies UANI has written to so far include General Electric, Bombardier, Maersk and Siemens. In its letter to GE, which has said it intends to do some business with Iran, UANI said the company’s decision would “give aid and comfort to a lawless regime that foments terrorism and unrest”. GE responded that any business it conducted in Iran would be “allowed by [US] laws and regulations” and would be “consistent with the foreign policy of the United States and in the best interests of GE’s shareholders”.
UANI was set up in 2008 by a bipartisan group of former officials, including former CIA director Jim Woolsey, Richard Holbrooke and Dennis Ross, a Middle East expert who played a key role in several administrations.
Gary Samore, a former senior Obama administration official, resigned as the group’s president last year after he concluded that the nuclear deal was in the national interests of the US.
Additional reporting Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran
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