Sidestepping Sanctions

Article excerpt

While the Bush administration looks the other way, U.S. companies are dodging laws that bar them from doing business with nations accused of sponsoring terrorism. By Michael Scherer

In April, as American tanks approached the outskirts of Baghdad, Pentagon officials suggested that only U.S. companies would be allowed to take part in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq's oil fields. In strategic leaks to the press, the Defense Department offered a rationale for an American-only policy: European firms, they declared, should be excluded because they do business with Iran and other countries that sponsor terrorist organizations and harbor weapons of mass destruction.

What defense officials failed to note, however, is that many U.S. companies routinely find ways to bypass economic sanctions and export regulations that bar American citizens and companies from trading with Iran, North Korea, Libya, and Sudan. Taking advantage of legal loopholes, these corporations simply conduct their business through offshore subsidiaries that employ only foreign citizens. With no Americans on the payroll, the subsidiaries are free to ignore U.S. sanctions against the "axis of evil" and other countries identified by the Bush administration as the primary sponsors of terrorism. Other U.S. firms-including Hewlett-Packard, Kodak, and Procter & Gamble-ship their products to Dubai, where third parties are known to "re-export" goods to Iran.

"It's a real problem," says Michael Beck, an expert on sanctions at the University of Georgia. "American companies bypass U.S. export controls by using entities based in other countries."

In Iran-"the most active state sponsor of terrorism," according to the State Department-General Electric is providing four hydroelectric generators to expand a dam on the Kurun River through a Canadian subsidiary called GE Hydro and is also supplying pipeline compressors and gas turbines for Iran's burgeoning oil sector through an Italian unit called Nuovo Pignone. Not far from the Iraqi border, a subsidiary of Halliburton is helping to build a $228 million fertilizer plant, one of the world's largest. Another Halliburton division based in Sweden is providing the Iranian National Oil Co. with a $226 million semi-submersible drilling rig, while other subsidiaries operate in Libya. A British subsidiary of ConocoPhillips helped Iran survey its Azadegan oil field, and ExxonMobil only recently sold its Sudanese gas subsidiary based in Khartoum.

U.S. companies acknowledge that they routinely use overseas subsidiaries to trade with sanctioned countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. "We have used foreign subsidiaries to sell oil equipment in those regions," says Scott Amann, a vice president at the oil -service firm Cooper Cameron. "We're not allowed to have an American company or American operation."

But while President Bush has drawn a line in the sand with foreign governments, warning them "you are with us or you're with the terrorists," he has done little to crack down on U.S. corporations that skirt trade embargoes designed to undercut terrorist organizations. "It is an outrage, if not actually criminal, when you have companies end-running these sanctions," says Frank Gaffney, a deputy defense secretary under Reagan and president of the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

Previous administrations have been less friendly to sanction dodgers. The Reagan administration pressured subsidiaries of Conoco and Marathon to leave Libya in the 1980s, and in 1995 the Clinton administration persuaded Conoco to abandon an Iranian oil contract arranged through a Dutch subsidiary. "If a government is strongly committed to stopping these kinds of transactions, it can do so," says Kenneth Rodman, a sanctions expert at Colby College. "There is power that the U.S. is choosing not to use for some reason."

Instead, the Bush administration has used its power behind the scenes to make it easier for American companies to do business with the very countries it has targeted in the war on terrorism. …