WASHINGTON – Vice President Dick Cheney (search), who has called Iran "the world's leading exporter of terror," pushed to lift U.S. trade sanctions against Tehran while chairman of Halliburton (search) Co. in the 1990s. And his company's offshore subsidiaries also expanded business in Iran.
Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards (search) criticized Cheney in Tuesday night's debate for his position on Iran during the 1990s, and Edwards said he supports expanding the sanctions against Iran.
Cheney countered that he now supports sanctions against Iran but sidestepped the issue of Halliburton's involvement, saying it was being raised by Democrats "to try to confuse the voters."
Halliburton's foreign subsidiaries did about $65 million in business with Iran last year, company documents say. A federal grand jury is investigating whether Halliburton or its executives deliberately violated the U.S. ban on trade with Iran.
Foreign subsidiaries of American companies can do business with Iran as long as no Americans participate in or direct that business. Halliburton says it did not break that law.
While he headed the Houston-based oil services and construction company, Cheney strongly criticized sanctions against countries like Iran and Libya. President Clinton cut off all U.S. trade with Iran in 1995 because of Tehran's support for terrorism.
Cheney argued then that sanctions did not work and punished American companies. The former defense secretary complained in a 1998 speech that U.S. companies were "cut out of the action" in Iran because of the sanctions.
At an energy industry conference in 1996, Cheney said sanctions were the greatest threat to Halliburton and other American oil-related companies trying to expand overseas.
"We seem to be sanction-happy as a government," Cheney said. "The problem is that the good Lord didn't see fit to always put oil and gas resources where there are democratic governments."
Although Cheney maintained his opposition to unilateral U.S. sanctions during his first months as vice president, the Bush administration renewed the trade ban with Iran in March 2001.
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush grouped Iran with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and North Korea as members of an "axis of evil" nations with ties to both terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.
Cheney now sounds a harder line against Iran.
"The government of Iran is the world's leading exporter of terror," Cheney said less than a month after Bush's January 2002 "axis of evil" speech.
On the campaign trail, Cheney has often boasted of how the Bush administration helped shut down an underground network supplying nuclear technology to Iran, which he called one of "the world's most dangerous regimes" in an August campaign speech in Davenport, Iowa.
Halliburton, meanwhile, has defended the business deals with Iran that intensified under Cheney.
"It is neither prudent nor appropriate for our company to establish our own country-by-country foreign policy," Halliburton said in a January statement amid criticism of its Iran deals.
Much of Halliburton's business with Iran comes through Halliburton Products & Services Ltd., a subsidiary incorporated in the Cayman Islands and based in the United Arab Emirates. Halliburton Products & Services opened a Tehran office in early 2000, before Cheney left Halliburton to become Bush's running mate.
Halliburton Products & Services Ltd. does between $30 million and $40 million in business each year with Iran, Halliburton said in response to a challenge by New York City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. Other foreign subsidiaries did about $25 million in business with Iran in 2003, the company said.
Halliburton also has kept alive a U.S.-based subsidiary called Kellogg Iran, Inc. Halliburton spokeswoman Cathy Gist said that company has not done anything since 1977, before Cheney acquired Kellogg Iran's former parent company for Halliburton.
Thompson, whose office oversees pension funds for New York City police and firefighters, has criticized Halliburton and other companies for doing business with Iran and other nations that sponsor terrorism.
"Halliburton is saying they adhere to the letter of the law, when it poses risks to the company but also to the United States and the world. I don't think it's excusable," Thompson said. "This began in February 2000, and Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton then. Yes, he obviously bears some responsibility."