Just weeks after coming to Washington in April to succeed a retiring Florida Democrat, Congressman Ted Deutch, D-Fla., was invited to testify before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Iran.
It’s rare enough for senators to invite members of the “other” body to testify. But to bring on a Washington newcomer like Deutch may have been unprecedented.
But Deutch has been earning kudos from both Democrats and Republicans for spearheading efforts to hold Iran accountable for its flagrant violations of international law, including its continuance of a nuclear weapons program.
“Deutch is a real hero in my estimation,” says Christopher Holton, national director of Divest Terror, a project of the Center for Security Policy, a Washington-based conservative group that focuses on national security matters.
“Deutch’s work was indispensable in lighting a fuse that has since spread to 18 other states. It was largely due to the state-level initiatives such as his that Congress finally acted to impose meaningful sanctions on Iran,” Holton said.
A Florida state senator before coming to Washington, Deutch spearheaded watershed legislation, signed into law in June 2007, that has led Florida state pension funds to shed nearly $1.2 billion in stocks and bonds they held with companies doing business in Iran and Sudan.
A key provision Deutch wrote into the Protecting Florida’s Investments Act instructed the State Board of Administration to assemble and publish a list of companies that were investing in oil and gas projects in Iran and Sudan, using publicly available information.
As Deutch tells Newsmax, if the state of Florida could identify these companies, with limited resources and no access to national intelligence assets, there’s no reason why the federal government can’t do it, too.
“The greatest frustration I have now is answering questions about why sanctions aren’t effective,” Rep. Deutch told Newsmax. “We don’t know how effective sanctions can be because for a decade and a half they were never enforced.”
In June, Deutch voted in favor of the strongly bipartisan Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act that the Obama White House had stalled for nearly 18 months.
The legislation banned companies selling refined petroleum products to Iran from doing business in the United States, and followed on the heels of a fourth round of United Nations sanctions adopted in May.
Deutch says the new law has finally got U.S. policy toward Iran “moving in the right direction,” but the ultimate test will be whether Iran actually stops its nuclear program.
“Much as I was proud to vote for the sanctions legislation, I would have been thrilled to see that legislation passed a year ago,” he said.
“Ultimately the goal of sanctions is to ratchet up the economic pressure on the Iranians to such a level that the regime determines it is simply too great to bear, and they are forced to weigh the decision to carry on their nuclear development and their illicit quest for nuclear weapons against the ever-growing pressure from their own people.”
Until now, the biggest problem with sanctions hasn’t been the laws, but getting the administration to comply with them, Deutch said.
Although the first sanctions on companies investing in Iran’s oil and gas sector were signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, only one company has ever been officially identified as a violator by the Department of State.
To increase the pressure on Iran, Deutch now is trying to build support for new legislation that would require all companies listed with the Security and Exchange Commission to disclose business activities in Iran.
“When Rep. Deutch came to Washington he wanted to make a difference right away,” said Jennifer Mizrahi, executive director of The Israel Project. “And he is doing a tremendous job on the Iran issue.”
To ensure that his bill is bipartisan, he personally recruited the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs committee, Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, as a lead co-sponsor. Her staff helped write the bill.
“Standing up to Ahmadinejad is not a partisan issue and should never be one,” Deutch says. “That is why this is a piece of bipartisan legislation. I think we’ll see a growing number of co-sponsors over the coming weeks.”
Naming the companies is important, Deutch believes. “It is no surprise that companies do not often respond to moral pressure alone. We need to hit them hard in their pocketbook and on their balance sheet,” he said. “We need to show them that their stock prices will be affected if their actions encourage Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.”
Legislation similar to Florida’s divestment act has been signed into law in 16 other states, while five more states have enacted similar measures without legislation.
The move to get state pension funds to divest from companies doing business in terrorist states was launched in 2006 by Missouri State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who established the nation’s first “terror-free investment” fund while making money for retirees to boot.
Conservative California legislator Joel Anderson introduced a divestment bill later that same year, and succeeded in getting a watered down version passed and signed into law in October 2007, a few months after Florida enacted its law.
But three years later, California state pension managers are still refusing to sell Iran-related investments. “You have completely thumbed your nose at the Legislature," Anderson told California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) managers during a hearing in Sacramento in February.
In April, California State Insurance commissioner Steve Poizner stepped up the pressure, publishing a list of 50 companies that were continuing to do business with Iran in the oil, gas, nuclear, or defense sectors. He called on all insurance companies doing business in California to divest themselves of any stock in those companies. By July, the companies had shed $400 million of Iran-related investments, or around one-fourth of the total Poizner had identified.
Deutch believes Florida’s divestment success stems from the fact that until very recently, it has been “the only state to have successfully identified, named, and published a list of violating companies.”
His new bill, the Iran Transparency and Accountability Act, will expand on existing sanctions legislation by requiring companies to declare publicly sanctionable investments in Iran in their quarterly and annual reports to the SEC.
“Individuals want to know that none of their own money is being invested in companies that put their profits ahead of international security,” Deutch told Newsmax.
Deutch’s legislation has been welcomed by pro-Israel groups and by national security groups concerned over Iran’s nuclear weapons development.
“It is time for companies to come clean about their inappropriate business in Iran, and when they do the American people will hold them accountable,” said Ambassador Mark Wallace, president of United Against Nuclear Iran.
In his interview with Newsmax, Rep. Deutch was asked about the Obama administration’s perceived antagonism toward Israel's settlement policies.
“I think the pro-Israel community has been successful for a long time because the issue of support for Israel has always been one that is not partisan in nature. I continue to believe that is the best way to approach it,” he said.
Rep. Deutch noted that President Obama backed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions act, which he signed into law in June, and that the administration has pushed the U.N. and EU to ratchet up the pressure on Iran.
“I was also privileged to vote on an additional $205 million for the Iron Dome missile defense project for Israel that the president requested,” he added. He also noted the recent U.S.-Israel military exercises that were the largest between the two countries.
“Those are the kind of positive developments that reaffirm the long-standing relationship between our two countries,” he said.
The only difference Deutch would acknowledge he might have with Obama was over the president’s badgering of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue the settlement freeze, even though the Palestinians failed to respond to that gesture for almost nine months.
“Ultimately, the Israeli government has to decide what’s in its security interest,” he said. “There’s been a lot of talk about what steps should be taken. I don’t believe there should be any preconditions. I think Prime Minister Netanyahu has been right about that all along.
“If the Palestinians won’t even accept the continued existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish state as a good faith effort, it makes the continuation of discussions awfully difficult. I don’t think there should be any preconditions,” he tells Newsmax.
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