The man turning Nissan’s Iran ties into NYC’s billion-dollar boondoggle
New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who many believe will run for mayor next year, wants Nissan to stop dealing with Tehran, or risk losing its Taxi of Tomorrow contract
By ARI BEN GOLDBERG April 27, 2012, 2:05 pm
Earlier this month, New York City unveiled its ‘Taxi of Tomorrow,’ a new Nissan cab specially designed for the unique challenges of Manhattan streets. That $1 billion contract, however, is now in jeopardy thanks in large part to New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who has been sounding the alarm about Nissan’s business in Iran.
The role of New York City Public Advocate is unique – it’s an independent city-wide elected office with a mandate to serve as a watchdog over the mayoral agencies. According to the city charter, the Public Advocate is next in line of succession to the mayor.
De Blasio – a former New York City Council member and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign manager – has not hesitated to use his office to criticize Mayor Michael Bloomberg on a range of issues, from homelessness to education. De Blasio himself is rumored to be a mayoral candidate when Bloomberg’s term expires in 2013.
One of his office’s current initiatives is called the Iran Watch List – a partnership with two local groups, Iran 180 and United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), who support strong sanctions against the Islamic Republc. The campaign aims to create a grassroots social media campaign that pressures 13 major carmakers to stop doing business in Iran. Already, Porsche and Hyundai have pulled out of the Iranian market. Others still selling vehicles to Tehran include Toyota, Volvo, Mitsubishi, Fiat, Mazda, and Nissan.
With the billion dollar Nissan-New York City contract pending, de Blasio has the Japanese carmaker in his crosshairs. The Times of Israel asked the New York City Public Advocate to explain more about this campaign.
With respect to Nissan’s contract to build the city’s ‘Taxi of Tomorrow,’ are you urging Mayor Bloomberg to cancel the deal?
There are a lot of different moving parts with the contract. New York city granted this contract through the Taxi and Limousine Commission. But the mayor held a celebration with Nissan a couple of weeks ago around the auto show here and we protested the fact that Nissan was happily celebrating with the mayor while simultaneously supporting the human rights abuses of the Iranian government.
I think there is ample opportunity for New York City to reevaluate the contract. There are still outstanding issues about the contract for other reasons and it has not been formalized. And I think it’s absolutely fair game to say to Nissan that, until they resolve the situation with their business in Iran, there’s an element of doubt and the city needs to reconsider the deal.
Mayor Bloomberg is a well-known supporter of Israel and certainly no fan of the Ayatollahs. Do you have any indication that he is aware that Nissan does business in Iran and that he’s concerned about it?
I know he’s aware of it. I have not heard any concern from him or his administration, though. I must say I’m quite disappointed. We’ve given the mayor’s office every opportunity to at least begin putting pressure on Nissan to do the right thing and they have not done that.
I’m sure, of course, that he shares a lot of the views that I have about Iran, but he also tends to not want to use the economic strength of government to achieve these important goals. And I think the mayor is out of touch with what people in New York City and in the US would feel on this one. Which is, here’s a state sponsor of terrorism, and they cannot benefit from doing business as usual. It’s not acceptable.
Nissan sells only 7,500 cars a year in Iran versus more than a million here in the US. Why wouldn’t the company just pull out of the Iranian market? From a business standpoint, it makes no sense for Nissan to dig in its heels.
It makes no sense to me, but then again, I look at the international business community and the nature of multinational corporations, and I think we could all say there’s been a number of recent questionable actions by such corporations worldwide. I’m certain that, by their nature, they don’t like to give up any geographical turf or any market. I understand that. I don’t expect them to have the same moral imperative that you would like a government to have.
But this one to me is a no-brainer. You’ve seen the photos with the Volvo trucks that the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council] has refitted with missiles or the Nissan trucks being used by Ahmadinejad as transport with his bodyguards. I don’t know how any company would want to be party to that and have an interlocking structural relationships with the Iranian military.
I don’t know how any company or executive could stomach that. Maybe they didn’t know, but once it’s been brought to their attention, I don’t know how they can stomach it. I’d like to believe that this attention will truly wake up some of these companies and make it clear to them that there will be real consequences.
Is that what happened with Porsche and Hyundai?
I think so. I think if you can’t explain your policy, you have a problem. And I don’t think Hyundai or any of these companies could really explain what they were still doing in Iran. Hyundai and Porsche came to the realization that it was only going to get worse. I don’t know what’s taking Nissan so long to get there. Or the others, but we’re going to show them that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Could this initiative backfire? Perhaps the government could rally support by saying, in effect, that this is proof that the West wants only to punish the Iranian people rather than stopping its nuclear program.
I honestly had that concern. We vetted that argument with UANI, Iran 180 and, more recently, with AIPAC. The answer has been consistent in each case – this argument is a red herring. It’s been the argument against sanctions and other aggressive acts but, in fact, the only thing the Iranian government understands is force. Force takes more than one form – it’s not just military force, it’s economic force as well.
If the Iranians, particularly the elites, cannot thrive economically, if their missteps are causing an economic breakdown, it is just going to cause more unrest among the people. If their elites cannot have the luxury goods they want or get off to Paris or access to the foreign goods they want, whatever else they’re accustomed to, it will turn them against the regime. Remember, this was a country very Western facing for many years. What we hear consistently from the experts who are focused on Iran is that this is a very important part of the strategy to make it untenable for the elites to live their lives as they’ve been accustomed to doing.
Iran’s government can turn away from nuclear weapons. They can turn away from being a state-sponsor of terrorism and regain their place amongst the community of nations and maximize their economic strength because of their oil and natural resources. That’s a hell of a lot saner path and a lot of the people in the government probably know it. And we have to make it so sharp a contrast that they have no choice but to turn away from the adventurism that has marked them for many years.
Finally, will you be running for New York City mayor next year?
I’ve been asked that question about a thousand times and what I say is that I don’t believe it’s time to talk about it until we get through the current presidential election. After that, it will be time to talk about the mayoral election of 2013.
Northeast Regional Director
AIPAC • The American Israel Public Affairs Committee