Is a ‘secret’ American NGO blocking French investments in Iran?

ALAIN JOCARD, AFP |French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, on the stairs of the Elysee presidential palace in Paris on June 22, 2016

French newspaper Le Parisien on Friday accused a US-based NGO of trying to “torpedo” French business initiatives in Iran, but the French daily may be sounding a false alarm.


While sanctions against Iran have been eased in the wake of last year’s nuclear disarmament deal with six world powers, one NGO is trying to block major French businesses like Airbus and Peugeot-Citroen from making deals in Iran, according to Le Parisien.

The organisation, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), was founded in 2008 and its leaders include Mike Wallace, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations under president George W. Bush, and former US senator Joe Lieberman. One of its founders is James Woolsey, who directed the CIA under Bill Clinton.

According to its website, UANI aims to end economic support of the Iranian regime because of its “role as a state sponsor of global terrorism, and a major violator of human rights at home and abroad”. UANI seeks to “isolate the Iranian regime economically and diplomatically”, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive US think tank.

France's Le Parisien newspaper suggested that UANI, which is controversial even within the United States, is an American “secret weapon” with links to the CIA, aimed at blocking European businesses – “and especially French ones” – from doing business in Iran. And behind UANI’s moralistic arguments, the French daily said, UANI just wants to guard a “slice of the pie” of the Iranian market for US businesses.

During a visit from Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Paris last spring, half a dozen major French businesses received “threatening” letters from UANI citing possible legal action, Le Parisien reported.

However such threats are well beyond the group’s scope, experts tell FRANCE 24.

“UANI in itself cannot take any legal action,” said Dr. Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi of the Royal United Services Institute, a UK security and defense think tank. “It can just warn companies that investing in Iran is not worth the cost of having to deal with the legal, financial and reputational costs, and trying to deter them from returning or entering in the Iranian market.”

And while UANI may have targeted French businesses during Zarif’s visit to Paris, the NGO has also taken aim at US corporate interests in Iran. The UANI website provides extensive information on any company that invests in Iran. UANI also sends letters to those businesses in order to outline the extensive legal and financial risks of those making deals in Iran.

“[French aviation giant] Airbus received a letter from UANI, but so did Boeing,” its American counterpart, UANI president David Ibsen told FRANCE 24.

Not-so-secret weapon

Far from being a “secret weapon”, UANI has been an outspoken critic of Iran since the organisation’s founding. UANI’s position has often run counter to that of the Obama administration – most notably when the NGO objected to the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

“UANI is one of the many institutions that is actively lobbying against business with Iran,” Dr. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, chair of Iranian studies at the University of London, told FRANCE 24.

“It is staffed by prominent US decision-makers with a long track record of suspicion towards the Iranian state.”

Nor is it likely that the organisation has a major CIA connection. Ibsen told FRANCE 24 that UANI receives “no funding government funding whatsoever” and has “no links to government organisations”.

As for the role of ex-CIA director Woolsey, he “is a member of several other think tanks and lobbying organisations that have targeted Iran for a long time now”, Adib-Moghaddam said.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning