The rich irony: Romney’s many financial ties to Iran

The Republican candidate's conduct since calling for divestment from the Islamic Republic in 2007 has been inexcusable

During last Monday’s foreign policy debate, President Obama systematically refuted Governor Mitt Romney’s accusations about US policy on Iran. More than that, he pointed out Romney’s outrageous personal conduct over the issue:

…while we were coordinating an international coalition to make sure these sanctions were effective, you were still invested in a Chinese state oil company that was doing business with the Iranian oil sector.

Are these new accusations correct? Absolutely, yes. Even the fact-checking bloggers at Fox News have admitted as much.

According to Romney’s tax records released earlier this year, during 2009 and 2010, over $77,000 of Romney’s money was being invested into CNOOC, an oil company fully owned by the government of China.

Candidate Romney expressed concern about Iran’s nuclear program, and bashed the Chinese for unfair economic practices, but, meanwhile, investor Romney was not deterred by the fact that CNOOC had just signed an agreement to develop the huge North Pars gas field in Iran.

In fact, Romney’s CNOOC holdings are just the tip of the iceberg, part of a consistent record of behavior by the candidate in which he talks a big game on Iran but undermines this impression in his personal conduct.

Romney has only held major elected office once in his life, as the governor of Massachusetts from January 2003 to January 2007. During that time, he did absolutely nothing to divest its state employee pension fund from companies that do business with Iran, even after conservative security analysts raised public concern (PDF) about these investments in 2004.

Governor Romney had extensive influence over the pension’s decisions through ex-officio membership and additional appointments to its investment management board, but there is zero evidence that he did anything at the time to constrain Iran, an issue that is now supposedly so near and dear to his heart.

In fact, it was only after he left the Massachusetts State House and began preparing his first presidential campaign that he saw the benefits of advocating divestment form Iran. Only then did he announce that “we should explore a selective disinvestment policy,” and urged officials in New York and his home state to explore divestment from Iran.

Mitt Romney arrives at a campaign rally in Ames, Iowa last Friday (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
Mitt Romney arrives at a campaign rally in Ames, Iowa last Friday (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

Even if one forgives Romney for doing absolutely nothing about Iran’s nuclear ambitions during his time in government, his conduct since calling for divestment from Iran in 2007 is inexcusable. His investments, handled in a blind trust, were a serial violator of the principle that responsible Americans should not invest in firms that do business with the fundamentalist regime in Tehran.

Of course, Candidate Romney tries to dodge these accusations by brandishing the phrase “blind trust” in order to assert that he has nothing to do with Investor Romney. But here his own record comes back to haunt him. When running against Senator Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney famously spoke out against Senator Kennedy’s blind trust, “The blind trust is an age-old ruse, if you will…Which is to say, you can always tell a blind trust what it can and cannot do.”

Between 2008 and 2010, Romney’s blind trust bought and sold roughly 1,800 shares of Nokia despite the fact that Nokia, in a joint venture with Siemens, reportedly sold Iran technology for internet monitoring and censorship in 2008.

He also made other large investments in numerous companies in Europe and around the globe that had recent or ongoing dealings with Iran at the time: BNP Paribas, Schlumberger, Komatsu, China North Oil, Intesa San Paolo. The list is long, and the dollar amounts are stunning.

But perhaps the most hypocritical is Romney’s longtime investment in Gazprom, an energy giant that is working to develop Iran’s natural gas sector and whose majority shareholder is the Russian government.

Candidate Romney has gone on record, wisely or unwisely, calling Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Yet investor Romney has had no qualms in the last decade over sending a six-figure amount of his own money to line Gazprom’s coffers.

The irony here is just too rich (no pun intended). Romney cares about rolling back Iran’s nuclear program, but only so long as it is personally convenient for him. To the extent that he has deeply held convictions on foreign affairs, those convictions have never been consistently applied to his own financial conduct.

Viewed in this light, his criticism of President Obama – whose leadership restored trust and respect for America abroad, which enabled him to assemble a stronger coalition against Iran’s nuclear program than Bush as president ever achieved – appears downright hypocritical. If Romney has seemingly gotten away with this sort of duplicity in the name of gaining even more personal wealth, imagine what he would do as president when he actually has the responsibility to make tough decisions to stop Iran.

About the Author
Mel Levine is a former senior Democratic congressman of the Middle East subcommittee of the House of Representatives from California. He served from 1983-1993.