BY MARK D. WALLACE – Will the new sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the US Congress and the European Union stop Iran from its pursuit of nuclear weapons? The odds would be better if our own Securities and Exchange Commission was fully on board.
UN investigators recently reported that Iran’s enriched uranium supply is now more than 2,100 kilograms — enough to build two bombs. That Tehran’s nuclear program continues unabated is proof positive that sanctions haven’t been working.
And a big part of the problem is that, for decades, publicly traded multinational companies have been able to conduct business in Iran with impunity, shielded from public scrutiny.
These firms provide goods and investment dollars to Iran’s elites, enabling Tehran to finance its nuclear ambitions and other dangerous activities, including Iran’s extensive support of terrorism. Companies all too often conceal those activities — not only from the public back home, but also from regulators.
It is time for the SEC to require all companies that avail themselves of the US capital markets to fully disclose any and all business they conduct in or with Iran. Shining a light on such dealings is the first step to ensuring that money and resources — and in some cases US taxpayer dollars — don’t go to advance Iran’s nuclear program.
US law now requires that publicly traded companies disclose all “material” information related to foreign investments in their shareholder reports and in other SEC filings. Firms have enormous latitude to decide for themselves what’s actually “material” — that is, facts a reasonable investor would consider important when deciding whether to buy or sell a company’s shares.
Iran’s support for international terrorism, pursuit of an illegal nuclear weapon, extensive human-rights violations and its immense political and economic instability — and the prospect of further sanctions — ought to qualify any and all involvement there as “material.” But many companies have been less than forthcoming about their business dealings with Iran.
The growing appreciation of the Iranian threat has led regulators and public-interest groups to pressure firms to truly comply with disclosure obligations and reveal the nature of their Iran business dealings. Recent positive developments include the launch of SEC and Justice Department investigations into unnamed pharmaceutical and energy companies believed to be doing business in Iran.
But case-by-case enforcement doesn’t go far enough. The SEC can do far more to close loopholes that allow companies to conceal their operations. It needs new regulations to make plain that no company can conduct secret business in Iran. Such rules should require SEC registrants and their subsidiaries to come clean and report any and all commercial dealings in Iran and to report any Iranian assets they might hold. This disclosure should be required regardless of whether the information meets corporate management’s definition of “material.”
The moment companies come clean about their investments in Iran is the moment that continuing those operations will become untenable. Public knowledge that a business operates in a country that poses a serious threat to global security will trigger widespread outrage and contempt for that company. Responsible firms will pull out of Iran.
Already, about a dozen companies have ceased doing business in Iran in recent months. Accounting firm KPMG, for instance, announced the termination of its relationship with an Iranian partner — citing “serious and escalating concerns” about Tehran’s conduct. KPMG had been providing auditing, accounting, tax and other services for businesses operating in Iran. Similarly, Shell announced in March that it would cease gasoline sales in Iran, after having shipped an estimated 1.65 million barrels of gasoline into the country between April and October of last year.
These businesses join many other international giants that have scaled down or stopped Iranian contracts due to public pressure, including General Electric, Caterpillar, Ingersoll Rand, the Huntsman Corp., Siemens, Eni, BP and Reliance Industries.
But how many others still do business with Iran? It’s time for the American people to find out. The SEC should make crystal-clear sure that all US-listed public companies must publicly acknowledge their work in Iran.
Any firm seeking to continue enabling that rogue nation will sully its reputation and hurt its pocketbook in America.
Mark D. Wallace, President of United Against Nuclear Iran, served as US Ambassador to the United Nations, Representative for UN Management and Reform, from 2006 to 2008.