Divest Now

I’ve been incredibly frustrated reading about the turmoil in Iran and feeling that all I can really do about it is watch more Anderson Cooper.

President Barack Obama himself had a hard time calibrating his response to the uprising following June’s rigged election returns, which allowed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to retain power. If Obama had shown too much support for the millions of protesters who took to the streets, they would have been derided as American stooges. If he showed too little, they would feel abandoned in their struggle for civil and human rights.

So if the President didn’t quite know how to help, how is John Q. American supposed to know?

Well, now we have our chance.

On Tuesday, July 21, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to urge the county $9-billion pension fund to divest any assets or funds from companies doing business in Iran. The recommendation is aimed solely at companies assisting the Islamic Republic’s energy sectors.

Direct investment in Iran is, of course, prohibited by Federal law. But the County recommendation, proposed by Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Michael D. Antonovich, calls on the County to divest its funds from outside companies that aid and abet Iran’s economy.

About 50 people crowded into a hearing room to debate Resolution 4, “to send a five-signature letter to the CEO and Members of the Board of Investment of the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association (LACERA), requesting that LACERA divest from those companies that are liable to U.S. Government sanctions by virtue of their investments in the Iranian energy sector.”

Fifteen speakers representing synagogues, the young professional Iranian-Jewish group 30 Years After, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and others presented the case for divestment.

“I am here today, urging the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and County Pension Board, on behalf of my organization and countless other citizens of Los Angeles, to divest from companies doing business with Iran,” said Michael Yadegaran of 30 Years After. “As you know, the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. L.A. County’s divestment will send a powerful message to all corporations currently doing business with Iran and will make other corporations think twice before entering into new contracts with Iran.

“As Americans, we reap the benefits of freedom and democracy. It is time that we punish those who deprive their citizens of basic human rights,” Yadegaran said.

The resolution passed with four votes: Supervisors Yaroslavsky, Antonovich, Don Knabe and Gloria Molina (Mark Ridley-Thomas was not present for the vote).

LACERA’s investment board will take up the resolution at its next meeting, which at press time had not been scheduled. But organizers point out that the resolution is non-binding, and the board is composed of appointed officials whose sole duty is to maximize the return on the pension fund’s investment. While some of the five-member board are known to be sympathetic to divestment, others are more of a question mark.

“I wouldn’t call this a done deal at the Investment Board,” said one organizer. “We will still have to explain the need for this, and political arguments don’t resonate to a pension fund.”

Proponents of the measure can and do argue that Iran’s tottering regime makes investments in companies that do business with Iran too risky for the public good. Right now companies like Nokia, which provided the hi-tech infrastructure that allowed Iran’s mullahs to dig into computer and phone records to root out dissidents, are facing worldwide public backlash. Who needs that headache?

But if the investment board takes a slightly more long-term view, they would have to wonder how well any of their investments would do in a world destabilized by a nuclear-armed Iran.

That’s why there isn’t a sane country in the world that wants Iran to have nuclear weapons. Israel and the Jews may have the most immediate stake in this — considering Ahmadinejad’s promise to destroy the Jewish state — but there is international consensus that an Iranian bomb would lead to a Middle East nuclear arms race, threaten the world oil supply, increase the risks of nuclear terrorism and blackmail, and make the current corrupt regime there even stronger. In a world where the current regime in Iran has the bomb, any Investment Board better be selling short.

Divestment and sanctions offer an effective tool in pressuring the regime in Iran toward collapse, or at least convince it to stop its rapid march toward developing nuclear weapons.

That’s the real reason for divestment, and it makes sense enough that there need be no others.

“Sanctions are a necessary prelude to a peaceful option,” Gidi Grinstein, who runs the Re’ut Institute in Israel, wrote me via e-mail. “Hence, divestment as part of a package of sanctions may not be successful on its own in stopping the nuclear project, but compounded with the two other legs of a credible and viable military option and a political package, it may work. An effective outcome is not guaranteed, but decisive action here is very important.”

Want to help make a difference in Iran? Write a thoughtful letter supporting divestment to:

William R. Pryor, Chairman, LACERA, P.O. Box 7060, Pasadena, CA, 91109-7060.

That’s our chance, and we had better take it.