US government is continuously pressurizing Iran to give up its nuclear program. This pressure is being exerted through various means one of which is isolating the target country through sanctions. Only a couple of days ago, the Obama administration imposed new sanctions on Iran, serving notice that it will not ease the pressure on Tehran just because it has begun talking again with the West about its nuclear program. According to a New York Times report, the measures announced by the Treasury Department — aimed at three companies linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and at Iran’s national shipping line — are less important than the timing. They come two weeks after Iran held chilly talks in Geneva with the United States and other countries, which accomplished little beyond an agreement to meet again in Istanbul in late January.
The tightening of the economic vise reflects the administration’s conviction that its pressure tactics are inflicting genuine pain on Iran. It said five Iranian ships had been seized in Singapore and other ports after the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines defaulted on more than $500 million in debt.
Notwithstanding these fresh sanctions and decades old 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. In a separate report carried by New York Times, 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.
In an interview, the Obama administration’s point man on sanctions, Stuart A. Levey, said that focusing on the exceptions “misses the forest for the trees.” Indeed, the exceptions represent only a small counterweight to the overall force of America’s trade sanctions, which are among the toughest in the world. Now they are particularly focused on Iran, where on top of a broad embargo that prohibits most trade, the United States and its allies this year adopted a new round of sanctions that have effectively shut Iran off from much of the international financial system.