More vigilance on Iran

Bigger deals with Iran than the Ofer Brothers' have been exposed, but what sets this apart is the Israeli connection.

ofer brothers_311 reuters (photo credit: Reuters)
ofer brothers_311 reuters
(photo credit: Reuters)
There is a man-bites-dog quality to the imposition of American penalties on an Israeli conglomerate last week for allegedly selling an oil tanker to Iran. Bigger deals with Iran have been exposed, but what sets this apart is the Israeli connection. Since international sanctions target Iranian nuclear ambitions – which foremost constitute an existential danger to Israel – it’s naturally unexpected and entirely more incongruous to find Israelis dealing with Iran than to find nationals of other countries.
Moreover, the Ofer Brothers Group, named by the Americans, is one of Israel’s richest, if not its richest consortium.
The US State Department charges that Singapore’s Tanker Pacific, owned by the Ofers, had sold a tanker, Raffles Park, for $8.65 million. It eventually reached the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL).
American punitive measures bar the vendors from securing financing from the US Export-Import Bank, from obtaining loans of over $10million from US financial institutions, and from receiving US export licenses. However, the injury to the Ofers’ reputation stings them the most.
The Ofers hotly deny any dealings with Iran and assert that “the authorized agencies of the State of Israel will confirm our statement in full.”
According to their version, Tanker Pacific made the sale to a Dubai-registered firm, Crystal Shipping, which doesn’t appear on any US blacklist. It was Crystal Shipping that transferred the tanker, renamed Emma, to IRISL.
At this point in time, we cannot pass judgment. The Ofers’ line is that it’s all a misunderstanding, that they couldn’t have known with whom their subsidiary did business.
The US position, though, is that the Ofers cannot plead ignorance. The State Department’s specific accusation is that “Tanker Pacific and Ofer Brothers Group failed to exercise due diligence and did not heed publicly available and easily obtainable information that would have indicated that they were dealing with IRISL.”
In other words, the company should have known or should have tried harder to find out who was behind the tanker’s ostensible buyers.
This message is critically important. The American aim here may indeed be to underscore this point dauntingly and thereby deter all commercial enterprises anywhere from lackadaisical sanctions-breaching business practices.
All big-time operators owe it to the free world in which they function (to say nothing of Israelis, whose very survival hangs in the balance) to pay very close attention to the people with whom they do business. They must exercise ultra-scrutiny because international marketplaces brim with front-men who aren’t who they claim to be.
Wheeler-dealers who do mega-business aren’t naïve. They cannot sell their wares and then claim not to have known who their buyers were. The life-and-death stakes are too terrifyingly high. The primary onus must be on the traders because these aren’t normal times, given the horrific and undiminished threats from Tehran’s ayatollahs.
That said, pitfalls abound and our officialdom cannot presume all businessmen to be vigilant or capable of vigilance. Israelis deal daily in foreign equity markets where they may unwittingly invest in firms that violate the anti-Iran sanctions. Where possible, Israelis must be warned away from dubious contacts.
Hence, some responsibility does ultimately also rest with the government. Yet, incredibly, our Treasury is yet to publish a list of firms doing business with Iran, in order to prevent involvement with them.
Finally, all our above concerns pale against the distressing big picture. International sanctions on Iran are flawed. Russia and China hardly abide by them sincerely. The situation in the radical segments of South America, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enjoys a bizarre following, is even more out of control, as it is throughout much of Asia, particularly the Muslim components thereof. Worst are Iran’s outright allies in the region, beginning with Syria and its Lebanese puppet and reaching all the way to transformed Turkey.
Washington may seem meticulous in its enforcement, yet this is no antidote to the Iranian nukes threat. If anything, incomplete sanctions may well exacerbate our predicament. They lend the impression of international resolve but might in all probability provide only the appearance of international action, thus serving to lull Israel or tie its hands.