McCain’s Divestment Dance

Among John McCain’s proposals in his speech to AIPAC today was a “wordwide divestment campaign” against Iran. The idea has picked up steam in the past couple of years, with state governments from California to Maryland to McCain’s own state of Arizona passing divestment bills. But those bills mostly deal with investment through pension funds, which alone isn’t going to crush Iran. The campaign is really about international pressure, since U.S. companies are already banned from doing business in Iran. (President Carter froze Iranian assets during the hostage crisis in 1979. President Clinton issued an executive order in 1995 banning trade with and investment in Iran.)

But the small amount that the United States can do—calling attention to foreign companies that do invest in Iran and pressuring them to stop—was proposed by Obama back in 2007. And as the Obama camp was quick to point out, McCain did not sign on. Obama’s bill, co-authored with Sam Brownback, would create a list of businesses that invest more than $20 million in Iran’s energy sector, to help investors know which companies they may want to divest from. Thirty-three senators signed on as co-sponsors, including John Kerry, Trent Lott, Ted Kennedy, Mel Martinez, and Joe Lieberman—but not McCain. His campaign didn’t respond to e-mails asking why.

The bill is currently held up in the committee on banking, housing, and urban affairs. The committee’s ranking Republican member, Sen. Richard Shelby, claimed to have some procedural beef with the bill—he says any bill dealing with a monetary issue must pass through it. But some people think he’s holding it as a favor to the Bush administration, which doesn’t want to alienate anti-divestment allies at the moment.

McCain may have been smart to stay away. When he and Obama agree on something, like anti-torture laws and immigration reform, McCain likes to be out in front. Signing onto Obama’s divestment bill would make it look like he’s playing second fiddle. Then there’s the risk of alienating the current administration. McCain has walked a fine line between courting Bush (see last week’s photo op ) and distancing himself (see Katrina, global warming). On Iran, where the two have all-but-identical positions, he’d probably prefer to toe the party line.

Update 5:03 p.m.: Worth noting is the timing of McCain’s call to divest. Last week, TPM reported that campaign manager Rick Davis once worked for a Ukrainian billionaire with ties to Iran. And today, Huffington Post revealed chief strategist Charlie Black once lobbied for a Chinese oil conglomerate linked to Iran back in 2005.