Political junkies may remember the name of David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, one of the architects of the successful presidential campaign, Plouffe and Senior Adviser in the Obama White House since early 2001
According to the Washington Post, a subsidiary of MTN Group, a South Africa-based telecommunications company, paid Plouffe for two speeches he made in Nigeria in December 2010, about a month before he joined the White House staff. MTN not only operates in Iran, but helped the Iranian government put down the rebellion in 2009.
According to the Wall Street Journal, MTN has a 49 percent stake in government-controlled MTN Irancell,
the second-largest mobile phone operator in Iran, and 21 percent of
MTN’s subscriber base is from the country. In January 2012, the
U.S.-based advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran
(UANI) launched a campaign publicly calling for MTN to scale back its
operations in Iran and end its business in the country. UANI charges
that MTN technology is “enabling the Iranian government to track and
locate cellphone users which it says is a violation of human rights.”
In another WSJ report, during the 2009 Iranian election protests, the Chinese telecom firm Huawei carried out orders from the Iranian government on behalf of its client MTN Irancell to suspend text messaging and Skype, which is popular among political dissidents.
And most recently the BBC reported that Chris Kilowan, a former executive for the
company in Iran, admitted that MTN Group may have been complicit in securing
American telecommunications technology from Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems
on behalf of Irancell, in violation of trade sanctions against Iran.
This does not seem like the type of company that someone advising the president (or about to advise the president) Should be associated with. At the time Plouff made his speeches it was widely known that MTN was working with the Iranians, and the United States was trying to tighten sanctions against the tyrannical regime.
The Washington Post Reports
There were no legal or ethical restrictions on Plouffe being paid to speak to the MTN subsidiary as a private citizen. But for a close Obama aide to have accepted payment from a company involved in Iran could prove troublesome for the president as the White House toughens its stance toward the Islamic republic.
The White House declined to make Plouffe available for an interview. Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said Sunday that criticizing Plouffe would be unfair because MTN Group’s role in Iran was not a high-profile issue when he was invited to speak to the affiliate.
“He gave two speeches on mobile technology and digital communications and had no separate meetings with the company’s leadership,” Schultz said in a statement to The Washington Post. “At the time, not even the most zealous watchdog group on this issue had targeted the Iranian business interests of the host’s holding company. Criticism of Mr. Plouffe now for issues and controversies that developed only years later is simply misplaced.”
White House officials said in an e-mail that Plouffe referred the proposed speech to his lawyer for review before accepting the invitation. The e-mail said Plouffe’s lawyer advised that MTN’s business dealings did not raise any issues “that would weigh against acceptance of the proposed speaking engagement.”
White House officials said it is not unusual for Washington figures to receive similar fees for speeches. They note that senior officials in the George W. Bush administration had been paid for speeches by companies doing business in Iran.
Plouffe has had no role in administration discussions on whether MTN Group or other companies might be sanctioned because of its activities in Iran, the officials said.
MTN executives denied violating any sanctions but acknowledged that they have been in discussions with administration authorities for months.
Paul Norman, a spokesman for MTN Group, said that the company sought Plouffe’s participation “because of his expertise and his knowledge of the U.S. political scene. It was part of a program of such speakers that MTN Nigeria invited to attend their senior management events. It had no connection or relevance to Iran.”
The White House said Plouffe declined to meet privately with MTN executives in Nigeria.
In 2005, MTN Group entered the Iranian market by forming a joint venture, Irancell, with an Iranian government-backed consortium. Headquartered in Johannesburg, MTN Group has rapidly expanded its businesses in Iran, Nigeria and other developing economies.
In 2006, Stuart Levey, then undersecretary of the Treasury and the point man on Iran sanction enforcement in the Bush administration — a job he also held for two years under Obama — told Turkish officials that Irancell was “fully owned” by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to a State Department cable made public by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Many people in many administrations speak before many businesses, Plouffe is not the first and won’t be the last. It would be refreshing however, if he owned up to it and admitted it was probably not the best decision in the world to get paid $100,000 by a company which helps Iran to limit the freedoms of its people. If Plouffe wasn’t smart enough to check the company out before accepting a speaking engagement, then he isn’t bright enough to serve int he White House.