Lawmakers urge state divestment from Iran

Lawmakers urge state divestment from Iran

One state can do only so much to affect the nation’s foreign policy, acknowledged Assemblyman Neil Cohen. Nevertheless, he is pushing legislation to divest state funds from companies linked to Iran and he is hopeful that his economic initiative will have some impact.

Cohen (D-Dist. ‘0) introduced a bill in May that would prohibit the investment of New Jersey public employee retirement funds in any foreign company linked to the Iranian government. State Sen. Robert Singer (R-Dist. 30), followed suit, introducing an identical bill in the Senate.

The bill, the first of its kind in the country, moved out of the Assembly’s state government committee earlier this month for review by the appropriations committee. The Senate bill is under review in that body’s state government committee.

The bill sends a strong message to countries that harbor terrorism, Singer told this newspaper on Wednesday.

"Iran’s development of nuclear weaponry casts a dark shadow over the entire region," Cohen told this newspaper on Monday. Divestment had been a successful tool with South Africa under apartheid, he said, adding that in 1996 he introduced similar legislation against Switzerland when that country denied the existence of bank accounts belonging to Holocaust survivors and victims.

"We have a historical basis for [divestment]," Cohen said. "Economic measures have been utilized before and utilized successfully."

"We have to take a strong stand on these issues," Singer said. "One of the clearest messages we can send as a state is monetarily. It’s always necessary to speak out against groups — or countries, in this case — that believe in exporting evil and believe in unrest in that region." Singer said he wants to see the Senate bill put to a vote before the break in June. He does not foresee any opposition. Once it moves forward, he said, he will send a copy to the Knesset to show Israel what New Jersey is doing.

The Assembly bill has also received a positive reception.

"I don’t believe that the state of New Jersey, its pension funds, or any other funding source that we have, should be invested with companies that are linked to Iran," said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, vice chair of the Assembly’s state government committee. "Iran has proven through its president that it is a threat to world peace.… Clearly, [President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] is unstable, and he is leading a country that is unstable."

Like Cohen, Schaer cited the example of South Africa, where divestment worked toward regime change. He acknowledged that divestment had become a tool against Israel as well, but was firm in the distinction between divesting from Israel and divesting from Iran.

"We’re the good guys," he said. "It differs because Israel has a right to exist. It’s a member of the United Nations and is a free and independent country with a right to exist. Here you have a member of the United Nations stating [Israel] has no right to exist."

Cohen also brushed aside the adoption of divestment by anti-Israel movements.

"They have that right," he said. "Even though they might not have the First Amendment right [to call for divestment] in their native countries."

Economic measures have been used against the United States by Middle Eastern countries as well, Cohen added. Arab countries have manipulated the price of oil to effect change in U.S. foreign policy.

Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel to be wiped off the map and his denial of the Holocaust make him a serious threat, Schaer said.

"You have him in control of a state that is determined to develop nuclear arms," he said. "One can only imagine what kind of international terrorism he will be responsible for when he has achieved that end."

Ahmadinejad’s statements are also a source of concern to Cohen.

"Given the nature of this president and his psychotic approach to international affairs, he’s a clear and present danger to the world," he said.

If the bill passes, state pension funds would have three years to divest from Iranian-linked companies. While the bill does not include the threat of fines, Cohen said the state would take the matter to court if any funds do not divest within the three-year time frame.

It is unclear how many state funds are actually invested in Iranian-linked companies. Tom Vincz, communications director at the New Jersey Treasury Department, said the department is "evaluating the implications of the proposed legislation" and "looking at potential impact." He did not know when the evaluation would be complete.

If the bill passes, Cohen and Singer said, they will promote similar legislation in the other 49 states. Cohen expects the Assembly bill to come to a vote before the end of the year.

Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the highest-ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a bill calling for divesting U.S. government pension funds from companies with more than $’0 million invested in Iranian energy. The bill is under review in House committees.

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