Sloppy records make it hard to tell exactly what the United States is exporting to Iran, despite sanctions meant to ensure only humanitarian goods and no military items go there, congressional investigators say.
The Government Accountability Office said Thursday that the government needs to produce complete and timely export licensing information to make sure Iran isn't getting weapons or nuclear technology.
Two Democrats — House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman of California and committee member David Scott of Georgia — sought the GAO review after a 2008 Associated Press investigation found a dramatic rise in the dollar value of exports to Iran during President George W. Bush's tenure. The AP found several strange items in U.S. export data, including military rifles. The Bush administration said its data was inaccurate, and the guns actually went to Iraq.
The GAO found the U.S. government's official statistics on exports to Iran from 2004 to 2008 mistakenly included nearly 100 types of goods, including the rifles and aircraft parts, that had gone to other countries, including Ireland, Israel and Iraq. The other goods in the export data were mostly agricultural, medical or informational items exempt from the sanctions, the GAO said.
The Census Bureau, which keeps the statistics, didn't spot or correct the errors because the shipments involved relatively small dollar amounts, the GAO said. Accurate records are crucial, the GAO said, because of the strict trade limits the U.S. has placed on Iran, which it considers a state sponsor of terrorism and suspects of trying to build nuclear weapons. The Census Bureau told the GAO it is improving its data entry in response to the review.
The Treasury Department is among the other agencies with a role in enforcing sanctions and tracking shipments to Iran. The GAO found Treasury couldn't provide complete and timely information on export licenses, and said that undermines the government's ability to assess compliance with sanctions, including making sure items with military uses aren't going there.
For example, Treasury couldn't give U.S. Customs and Border Protection thorough and prompt export license information it sought last year to help officers at U.S. ports quickly determine whether goods bound for Iran were properly licensed for export, GAO said. That forced customs agents to instead use a more time-consuming method to get the Treasury data through yet another agency.
The Justice Department has prosecuted several people over the years for smuggling contraband including fighter jet parts from the U.S. to Iran.
The report shows Congress needs to give Treasury and other agencies the tools needed to track goods sent to Iran and "ensure that exemptions to U.S. trade sanctions are not being abused," Scott said in a written statement.
Despite tense relations, U.S. exports to Iran increased from about $8 million in 2001 to $683 million in 2008, Bush's last year in office. The AP found cigarettes, bull semen, military apparel and a variety of other U.S. goods including musical instruments and brassieres went to Iran, along with medical supplies, corn and soybeans. The exports were sent under agricultural, medical and humanitarian exemptions to the U.S. sanctions.
Iran received about $282 million in U.S. exports last year. Agricultural goods including grain, seeds and plants made up the single biggest share, about $102 million, followed by pharmaceutical products and cereals. In 2008, Iran imported $583 million in cereals from the United States, perhaps due to poor harvests in Iran.
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