ofer - Moti Kimche - May 30 2011
Sami Ofer Photo by Moti Kimche
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The Ofer brothers, wearing their hat as a foreign company, are allowed to trade with Iran in many areas, including the buying and selling of oil. But they were not allowed to sell them a tanker because Iran's national shipping company, IRISL, is one of the companies the UN Security Council has imposed sanctions on.

In any case, if they are wearing their Israeli hat, it's not at all clear what they are allowed or not allowed to do. But beyond the legal nitpicking, is it right and moral for an Israeli company or businessman to do business with Iran?

As part of the efforts to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, the international community, led by the United States and the European Union, and urged on by Israel, has imposed a series of sanctions on the ayatollahs' regime.

The sanctions, which the Security Council has passed since 2006, are the lowest-common-denominator type, over which an international consensus can be obtained, particularly the support of Russia and China. They are aimed directly at government companies, private firms and a number of prominent individuals in Iran, including government officials and generals, linked directly to Iran's nuclear and missile programs. That's why Iran's shipping company is on the list, because Iran uses it to transport equipment and materials for its nuclear and missile programs.

But there is no ban on trading with Iran for oil and refined products, even though such sanctions are the most effective method because Iran's energy economy generates about 90 percent of its income. But such a decision cannot pass in the Security Council because of opposition from Russia and China.

Another batch of sanctions, the result of unilateral decisions by the U.S. government and the European Union, expands restrictions on trade with Iran in areas such as banking, which helps fund Tehran's nuclear and missile programs.

Voluntary sanctions are even broader. Quite a few companies and international conglomerates have restricted or halted trade with Iran in areas such as banking, finance, insurance, and oil and gas investments in that country because they fear the policy of certain American states, trade unions and municipalities to keep their pension funds from investing in companies that do business with Iran. For example, about a year ago, Los Angeles canceled a quarter-million-dollar contract with Germany's Siemens because the conglomerate did business with Iran.

In this context, Israel's hypocritical and self-righteous policies stand out even more prominently. Israel preaches to the whole world about the need for sanctions on Iran, while doing absolutely nothing about them.

For example, while Los Angeles canceled a major transportation contract with Siemens, the Israel Airports Authority decided to purchase about NIS 150 million worth of equipment from that company. And the Israel Electric Corporation has awarded a half-billion-shekel contract to the Danish firm Haldor Topsoe for air-pollution filters, even though that company is building refineries in Iran to the tune of billions of dollars.

Israel's hypocrisy can also be seen in its unwillingness to enforce its own law. That law, passed at the behest of Benjamin Netanyahu even before he became prime minister, clearly states that Israeli companies may not invest more than $10 million in an international company that does business with Iran.

Israel's famous bureaucracy also has a role to play in its turning a blind eye, it being entirely unclear whether Iran is classified as an enemy country. Most ministries have their own definitions; for example, the Defense Ministry bans military exports to Iran, even though in the 1980s and '90s it secretly sold equipment including shells and gas-warfare-detection gear to Tehran. The Interior Ministry has its own definition of what constitutes entry into and exit from Iran. The same is true for the Finance Ministry; the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry; and the Justice Ministry.

Even if an official entity knew of and even benefited from Ofer-family maritime connections with Iran that contributed to national security, this doesn't justify the ongoing carelessness in dealing with the matter in a broader context.

A guiding hand and a single clear policy are lacking to put an end to the shamefulness of Israeli companies doing business with Iran and turning the situation into one great farce.