Does Israel have an economic strategy on Iran?

Some sort of pressure – even symbolic – on a company like Samsung could at the minimum achieve a few things: It would signal resolve to Iran and to Israel’s friends.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (photo credit: SCREENSHOT DAVOS WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
There appears to be a disconnect between Jerusalem and Washington on the approach to sanctions on the Iranian regime. This time, it may be Israel that is guilty of an oversight.
Last weekend, 14,000 pro-Israel activists and members of the US Congress came together at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington for three straight days of calls for new sanctions on Iran. At the same time, Tel Aviv was recovering from a marathon sponsored by one of the companies that should be targeted.
The Tel Aviv Samsung Marathon, the largest sporting event in Israel, took the city by storm. Millions of shekels were invested in the advertising campaign, streets were shut down for the runners (including myself), and a massive “Samsung Expo” was set up in Rabin Square all week.
While 40,000 runners wore the neon yellow marathon T-shirt with Samsung’s logo on it, nobody seemed to have reservations that this company is still doing business with the mullahs in Iran.
Unlike Apple and Microsoft, for example, Samsung provides localized services to Iranians in their native Persian language. According to a 2012 report by the major Korean newspaper, Dong-A Ilbo, Korean companies LG Electronics and Samsung account for 30 percent of Iran’s mobile phone market.
In 2009, Samsung equipment may have been used to monitor political dissidents during the brutal crackdown on anti-regime protesters. As the world watched in horror via social media, Green Movement activists such as Neda Soltan – who was killed and became the symbol of regime repression – were brutalized and many others killed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. According to the group United Against Nuclear Iran, cofounded by US diplomat Dennis Ross – who served as special adviser to Hillary Clinton as secretary of state on matters including Iran – Samsung surveillance systems are sold in the Islamic Republic and may even have contributed to Neda’s death. It appears Samsung reconsidered its business in Iran four years later.
In April 2013, Samsung did suspend service to its online-app store in Iran, as the tech giant felt the pressure of international sanctions. It came after Nokia and Siemens Mobile pulled out of Iran altogether. The South Korean conglomerate then cited “legal reasons” as the motive for their move.
Nevertheless, Samsung Iran still appears to be alive. But after wavering last year, the company surely is not fully confident with the US Congress considering new sanctions legislation once again. This is an opportunity for Israel to help by applying economic pressure.
Samsung, like most major tech companies, has a research-and-development center in Israel. As a world leader in technological R&D, Israel could use its leverage over the company.
Samsung is planning to launch a startup incubator in Israel. According to the company’s plan announced in October 2013, it is planning on investing $100 million through its “Samsung Catalyst Fund” in 10 Israeli start-up companies this year. Moreover, Samsung is beginning to integrate new technology by Israeli start-up Telefonica to allow users to make phone calls on any device using an Internet connection. Samsung’s Israel center has been involved in developing camera modules for mobile devices.
In October, Samsung Israel opened a lab for developing “smart televisions.”
The software on the Galaxy Tab 3, Samsung’s tablet, was developed by an R&D team in Jerusalem.
A strategy for economic pressure would not cancel all of that, nor would it make Israelis give up their Samsung smartphones.
Yet, the ability of Samsung to put its name up in the lights of Tel Aviv for a week suggests there is no Israeli strategy at all for economic pressure. One wonders if so much as an angry letter was ever sent. Comically, the only anger that made headlines was Iranian anger over an Israeli Samsung ad in 2012. The Iranian regime reportedly considered banning Samsung.
Israel’s efforts to stop Iran are clearly robust and dynamic. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been credited as the first person to blow the whistle on the dangers of a nuclear Iran and continues to be one of the loudest voices in calling the world to action, most recently in his comments at the White House last week. The IDF last week intercepted an Iranian armament shipment headed to Gaza. Stuxnet may have been an Israeli cyber-effort to set back the nuclear program. But as a growing economic power, Israel should lead by example in the financial track as well.
The Western strategy to stop Iran is essentially triple pronged: it includes diplomacy, economic sanctions and a credible military threat. At the moment, the P5 + 1 is engaged in negotiations with Iran. But it is clear that military threat and sanctions are the reasons that Iran is at the table. They have been forced – not wooed – to the negotiating table. And the stronger the sanctions, the more likely the Iranians will be to make concessions.
Some sort of pressure – even symbolic – on a company like Samsung could at the minimum achieve a few things: It would signal resolve to Iran and to Israel’s friends. It could give momentum to members of the US Congress who are fighting uphill for further sanctions.
Perhaps, most importantly, it would allow Israel, if and when there is a military strike, to tell the world that non-violent options were fully exercised.
And maybe it would even move Samsung just enough to push its position off the fence and into the camp that is no longer doing business in Iran.
In most cases it is preferable to separate business and politics, but Iran’s aggression is not mere politics. It is life and death. To voice displeasure with Samsung would be to use the tool of diplomacy.
That tool needs to be used before it is too late. It deserves to be part of the discussion. ■
The writer is a master’s candidate in Middle East Studies