WASHINGTON – U.S. exports to Iran — including brassieres, bull semen, cosmetics and possibly even weapons — grew more than tenfold during President George W. Bush's years in office even as he accused Iran of nuclear ambitions and helping terrorists. America sent more cigarettes to Iran, at least $158 million worth under Bush, than any other products.
Other surprising shipments to Iran during the Bush administration: fur clothing, sculptures, perfume and musical instruments. Top states shipping goods to Iran include California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of seven years of U.S. government trade data.
Despite increasingly tough rhetoric toward Iran, which Bush has called part of an "axis of evil," U.S. trade in a range of goods survives on-again, off-again sanctions originally imposed nearly three decades ago. The rules allow sales of agricultural commodities, medicine and a few other categories of goods. The exemptions are designed to help Iranian families even as the United States pressures Iran's leaders.
"Our sanctions are targeted against the regime, not the people," said Adam Szubin, director of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the sanctions. The government tracks exports to Iran using details from shipping records, but in some cases it is unclear whether anyone pays attention.
Sanctions are intended in part to frustrate Iran's efforts to build its military, but the U.S. government's own figures show at least $148,000 worth of unspecified weapons and other military gear were exported from the United States to Iran during Bush's time in office. That includes $106,635 in military rifles and $8,760 in rifle parts and accessories shipped in 2004, the data shows.
Also shipped to Iran were at least $13,000 in "aircraft launching gear and/or deck arrestors," equipment needed to launch jets from aircraft carriers, according to U.S. records. Iran's navy is not believed to own or operate any carriers.
Those numbers may seem small, but military items can sell for pennies on the dollar compared with what the Pentagon paid. Last year, federal agents seized four F-14 fighter jets sold to domestic buyers by an officer at Point Mugu Naval Air Station, California for $2,000 to $4,000 each, with proceeds benefiting a squadron recreation fund. When F-14s were new, they cost roughly $38 million each.
Szubin said it was unlikely exports of military gear occurred, but added that the government was looking into it after the AP raised questions. He said shipping records are subject to human error, such as citing wrong commodity codes or recording "Iran" as the destination rather than "Iraq." The Treasury Department said Monday it was still checking to see whether it could offer an explanation.
"That's something that would obviously concern us greatly and concern the whole administration," Szubin said in an interview with the AP. "And so when you presented us with the question in the last day we have called over to our colleagues in other government agencies and you can be assured they're looking very carefully into it."
Bush this year signed legislation prohibiting the Pentagon from selling leftover F-14 parts. The law was prompted by AP reporting that buyers for Iran, China and other countries exploited Pentagon surplus sales to obtain sensitive military equipment that included parts for F-14 "Tomcats" and other aircraft and missile components. Two men were indicted in Florida last week on charges they shipped U.S. military aircraft parts to Iran, including Tomcat and attack-helicopter parts.
Iran received at least $620,000 in aircraft parts and $19,600 worth of aircraft during Bush's terms. Iran relies on spare parts from other countries to keep its commercial and military aircraft flying. In some cases, U.S. sanctions allow shipments of aircraft parts for safety upgrades for Iran's commercial passenger jets.
Iran is a hot issue in Washington. The House plans a hearing Wednesday on U.S. policy toward Iran, and the Bush administration announced Tuesday it was freezing the U.S. assets of several people and entities accused of helping Iran develop nuclear weapons.
But the U.S. government seems uncoordinated on efforts to limit trade with Iran.
The Securities and Exchange Commission sought to shine a light on companies active in Iran but stopped after business groups complained. The Treasury Department allowed some companies and individuals suspected of illegal trading with Iran to escape punishment. Yet the Bush administration also has collected millions of dollars in fines from trade-rule violators and pressed Congress without success to pass laws to strengthen enforcement.
The fact that the United States sells anything to Iran is news to some.
"Until you just told me that about Iran I'm not sure I knew we did any business with Iran," said Fred Wetherington, a tobacco grower in Hahira, Georgia, and chairman of Georgia's tobacco commission. "I thought because of the situation between our two governments, I didn't think we traded with them at all, so I certainly didn't know they were getting any cigarettes."
The United States sent Iran $546 million in goods from 2001 through last year, government figures show. It exported roughly $146 million worth last year, compared with $8.3 million in 2001, Bush's first year in office. Even adjusted for inflation, that is more than a tenfold increase.
Exports to Iran are a politically loaded but tiny part of U.S. trade. The United States counted more than $1 trillion in world exports last year. The value of U.S. shipments last year to Canada — America's top trading partner — was more than 1,000 times the value of shipments to Iran.
Top U.S. exports to Iran over Bush's years in office include corn, $68 million; chemical wood pulp, soda or sulfate, $64 million; soybeans, $43 million; medical equipment, $27 million; vitamins, $18 million; bull semen, $12.6 million; and vegetable seeds, $12 million, according to the AP's analysis of government trade data compiled by the World Institute for Strategic Economic Research. The value of cigarettes sold to Iran was more than twice that of the No. 2 category on the export list, vaccines, serums and blood products, $73 million.