Divest from Iran

If Western companies shut down their operations in Iran, Iran would understand that they need to back down.

ahmadinejad atom 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
ahmadinejad atom 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Iran says it's "too late" to stop its nuclear program. The California Assembly has its answer, but what about the G-8 leaders? On Tuesday, the California Assembly voted unanimously to require its state pension funds - the largest in the US - to divest from companies invested in Iran's defense, nuclear or oil industries. When the bill becomes law, it will apply to CalPERS and CalSTRS, the public employee and teachers retirement systems, with market values of $250 billion and $168b., respectively. The larger fund, CalPERS, currently has about $2b. invested in companies that would be covered by the law, and estimates that ending these investments could cost $100 million in commissions and taxes. But the Assembly decided that taking that loss was better than funding terrorism and America's enemies. As Assemblyman Joel Anderson put it, "Money is the mother's milk of terrorism, and yet here we are, through our state retirements and teachers retirements, funding these very same terrorist groups that are trying to kill us." Others argued that investing in Iran violated the funds' fiduciary responsibilities. "When CalPERS and CalSTRS invest public employee retirement funds in energy- or defense-related companies in Iran, they are putting these retirement funds at risk," Assemblywoman Fiona Ma said. "As a tax accountant, I know we can do good and do well in our investment decisions." Contrast this against the backdrop and likely results of the G-8 summit now convened at Heiligendamm, Germany. International experts, including the IAEA, agree that Iran already has 1,600 operational uranium-enriching centrifuges and could double or triple that number over the next year or so. At any point, once it decides that it has achieved sufficient capacity to churn out fuel for nuclear weapons, Iran could kick out international inspectors and launch its enrichment program into higher gear. And every day that goes by, Iran makes progress in ironing out any technical difficulties and accumulating the know-how it needs to run large cascades of centrifuges, a capacity that once obtained can be reconstructed even it the main known facility at Natanz is destroyed. Time, in other words, is running out to stop Iran's nuclear program. Yet there is little palpable sense of urgency as Western leaders meet in Germany. This is illustrated by the fact that global warming, a threat which even its more alarmist advocates measure mainly in decades or centuries, seems to be higher on the summit agenda. The G-8 foreign ministers, in a statement released on May 30, expressed their "profound concerns" over Iran's program and their "disappointment" over the failure to heed Security Council demands to end enrichment. "We condemn the threats towards Israel by the Iranian government and the repeated denial of the Holocaust by representatives of the Iranian government," the ministers also said. But was there anything in the statement that might be sufficient to force Iran to back down? Was there any sense that the democratic countries whose companies are directly and heavily invested in Iran - the same companies that California just voted to divest from - would do their part to stop Iran? Now is not the time for incrementalism. Everyone agrees that among the three alternatives - sanctions, military action, or a nuclear-armed Iran - the first is the most preferable. But insufficient sanctions will only guarantee that the West will face the other two extremely unpalatable alternatives. Though another Security Council resolution could be the vehicle, what is necessary is decisive action, with or without further resolutions. Iran's two biggest investors and refined oil suppliers are Western companies: France's Total and Netherlands-based Royal Dutch Shell. If these and other Western companies shut down their operations, it would quickly become clear that it is Iran, not the West, that will ultimately be forced to back down. If this sounds extreme, then it is clear that the alternative scenarios are not being taken seriously, and talk of a nuclear Iran being "unacceptable" is just talk. The truth is, if sanctions are allowed to fail, the alternatives will get worse and worse, and all will lead inexorably - as did the rise of fascism in the last century - to an increasingly costly military confrontation.