Corporate America Dodges “Trading with the Enemy” Act (OFAC) (Forbes 19/4/2004)
Trading With The Enemy
Matthew Swibel, 04.19.04
If you want to get round export controls, just sell the product to a front company in Dubai. The middlemen will take it from there.
On paper the shipment was harmless enough. Sixty-six American-made spark gaps–high-speed electrical switches used in medical devices to break up kidney stones–traveled from the manufacturer in Salem, Massachusetts late last summer to a buyer in Secaucus, New Jersey. From there, according to the export declaration, they were to be shipped to their ultimate destination in Cape Town, South Africa. But these spark gaps can also be used to detonate nuclear bombs–and it turned out that the goods were aimed at an end user in Pakistan, with a stopover in Dubai. The commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates, where trading activity accounts for the biggest single chunk (16.5%) of a $20 billion economy, has become a favorite diversion point on the Persian Gulf for shady cargo. With no export controls and hardly any bureaucracy at ports, airports and free zones, this entrepôt provides stellar cover for smugglers hoping to bypass U.S. embargoes.
On Oct. 3 U.S. investigators got a tip from a South African source. The shipment was headed for Islamabad via a DHL freight-forwarding service on Emirates Airlines–Dubai’s government carrier. Hours after the Emirates Airbus jet landed at Dubai International Airport on Oct. 20, a U.S. special agent there tracked down the spark gaps to the airline’s cargo shed, contacted its director of security and demanded to inspect the box. The response? Not a chance, according to the U.A.E.’s director of customs. The next day the goods, valued at $30,000, arrived in Pakistan aboard another Emirates flight.
The alleged shipper, an Israeli national named Asher Karni, was arrested in December at Denver International Airport. He awaits trial in the U.S. for conspiring to export goods without a license, a crime that could result in a ten-year sentence and a $250,000 fine per count. Neither Emirates Airlines nor the U.A.E. has been criticized publicly by U.S. officials.
That is particularly odd in light of the recent revelations of the region’s pivotal role in the spread of weapons of mass destruction. A Dubai-based computer firm arranged for Malaysian- and European-made gas centrifuge components, used to enrich uranium, to be sent on to Libya. The firm was part of a vast network devised by Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Hardly a revelation to the U.S. government. “Dubai, as a major shipping hub with a large free-trade zone, is in close proximity to countries of concern, and that poses some challenges,” says Kenneth Juster, an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Among the world’s top five sea-air hubs, Dubai can accept cargo and send it off in less than four hours. It’s only 100 miles to the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
No matter how hard the U.S. tries to keep dual-use commodities like gas monitors, software and nuclear triggers out of transshipment hubs like Dubai, stuff gets through. The lure is quick profits. Traders easily pocket 40% markups just by flipping goods, illicit and otherwise. “Business-people [here] are like cats,” says Abbas Bolurfrushan, chairman of the Dubai-based Iranian Business Council. “They find their way out of any dilemma.”
The open secret is that Dubai buys far more than it keeps. More than a quarter of its $23 billion in annual nonoil imports are reexported, and Iran gets the biggest share. Interviews with private businesspeople and U.S. officials, along with court documents, reveal a simple scheme. Companies located around the world sell goods–from cigarettes to medical devices and PCs–to buyers in the U.A.E. Dubai traders repackage the items and send them along by air or ship to agents in, say, Tehran, Pyongyang, Damascus or Islamabad.
Smoking out the offenders is tough. Outside of free zones foreigners are not permitted to own a majority of a business in Dubai, and local partners aren’t subject to export-control laws. These realities leave bureaucrats in Washington pessimistic. “Whenever there are third-party transactions, there is only so much you can do to follow the path of the transaction,” admits a U.S. Treasury official.
Smuggling isn’t new to the Persian Gulf. But the system really took off around 1987, when the U.S. imposed its first trade embargo on Iranian goods and services in response to Tehran’s sponsoring of terrorism in the Middle East. By the time the 1995 oil sanctions took effect, it was a well-greased mechanism. Virtually all trade and investment with Iran was prohibited in 1997, though the ban on caviar, nuts, dried fruits and carpets was lifted in 2000. The penalties–fines of up to $250,000 for individuals and ten years in the slammer–should have deterred violators.
Yet it didn’t take long for U.S. products to seep through the cracks. As long as a decade ago, more than a quarter of the roughly $1 billion in American goods exported to Dubai ended up in Iran, estimates the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a nonproliferation advocacy group in Washington, D.C. Last year U.S. companies sold $3.4 billion worth of goods to the U.A.E.; export licenses have jumped 47% over the last five years. “When you blow off the dust, the Dubai region sometimes means Iran and Libya,” says Paul DeBenedictis, chairman of the American Business Council of the Gulf Countries.
Today American companies are downright brazen about dodging the sanctions. And why not? On the list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons maintained by the Office of Foreign Asset Control at the U.S. Department of Treasury, only 1% of 3,032 separate entries are Dubai-based individuals and entities designated under the Iraq, Libya and Iran terrorism sanctions programs. On the Commerce Department’s current list of 55 foreign end users specifically involved in proliferation activities, there is not one U.A.E. entity; the agency dispatched its first attaché to Dubai only 15 months ago. Since 1999 the government has turned down just 2% of applications to export to the U.A.E.–sometimes snaring unsuspecting entrepreneurs (see box). Officials do point out that 114 end-use checks were conducted in the region between 2000 and 2003, up from 63 checks from 1996 to 1999.
Still, “companies are playing fast and loose,” says Adam Pener of Conflict Securities Advisory Group, a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy to multinational businesses. Halliburton, for example, manages to do business with Iran obliquely. Its Dubai-based affiliate, Halliburton Products & Services Ltd., allegedly has no Americans on staff; the Houston oil services company claims it has no direct ownership of the operation. Nevertheless, FORBES has obtained documents showing how Kala Ltd., the British arm of the National Iranian Oil Co., solicited at least 17 separate bids from the affiliate during 1997 and 1998 (when Vice President Cheney was Halliburton’s chief executive). A few bids include handwritten notes that say “FOB [free on board] Dubai Airport” or “FOB Dubai port”–meaning that the U.A.E. was just a way station between Halliburton and Tehran. Halliburton would not comment on the bids. In any event, earlier this year the Treasury Department reopened a 2001 inquiry into Halliburton’s Iran operations and its Dubai-based partner.
Halliburton is far from the only brand that shows up in Tehran. Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Microsoft, among many other U.S. companies, keep Dubai offices and are favorites these days among Iranian traders in Dubai. Reason? Strong demand for “anything high tech for military or oil services,” says Bolurfrushan of the Iranian Business Council. “In compliance with U.S. trade laws, it is Microsoft’s policy to not sell products to Iran from any of its offices,” says a spokeswoman for the software colossus. (Dell says it follows export controls, too.) To curtail the proliferations, the Department of Commerce is strengthening its regulation that punishes U.S. companies that send goods and know–or have reason to know–those goods could contribute to weapons of mass destruction.
Dubai, for its part, is happy to wink and look the other way. Last month the emirate’s de facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, met with Juster about the possibility of putting export controls on the books. The process “would require drafting laws and regulations, establishing a licensing and enforcement process and training personnel,” says Juster. It could take five years.
Baloney. The U.A.E. has acted swiftly in the past–when it has been in the state’s interest to do so. After a Georgian-flagged ship sank off Dubai’s coast in 2001, spilling smuggled Iraqi oil and forcing the closure of several water desalination plants, the U.A.E. foreign minister swiftly announced it would punish the shipowners and Dubai companies caught transporting illegal oil. Dubai authorities have squelched counterfeiting, another common practice in free zones, says Timothy Trainer, president of the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition in Washington. One of its members, cigarette maker Philip Morris, worked on a three-month-long investigation with the Dubai police and in January 2002 seized 120 million knock-off cigarettes, worth $7.5 million. (None of the smugglers, however, faced jail time. Only one paid a fine, and that was negligible, Trainer says.)
Can’t the U.S. persuade the United Arab Emirates to police their middlemen? Apparently much of it comes down to docking privileges for U.S. forces and American arms sales ($8.1 billion from 1995 to 2002) to the U.A.E. Forcing the issue “would be incredibly stupid,” says a source at the U.S. Embassy in the U.A.E. “This is the one friend we have in the Gulf, except Kuwait.”