David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser who was President Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, accepted a $100,000 speaking fee in 2010 from an affiliate of a company doing business with Iran’s government, The Washington Post reported.
A subsidiary of MTN Group, a South Africa-based telecommunications company, paid Plouffe for two speeches he gave in Nigeria in December 2010, about a month before he joined the White House staff.
Since Plouffe’s speeches, MTN Group has come under heightened scrutiny from U.S. authorities due to its activities in Iran and Syria, which are under international sanctions intended to limit the countries’ access to sensitive technology. At the time of Plouffe’s speeches, MTN had been in a partnership with a state-owned Iranian telecommunications firm, the newspaper reported.
While there were no legal or ethical restrictions on Plouffe being paid to speak to the group as a private citizen, the mere fact that a close Obama aide accepted payment from a company doing business with Iran could prove to be troublesome for the president, who has been widely accused of being feeble in his stance toward the Islamic Republic.
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 at the time.
“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.”
Officials claim that Plouffe has had no role in administration discussions on whether MTN Group or other companies be sanctioned.
In 2005, MTN Group entered the Iranian market by forming a joint venture, Irancell, with an Iranian government-backed consortium. In 2006, Stuart Levy, then undersecretary of the Treasury and the point man on Iran sanction enforcement in the Bush administration, told Turkish officials that Irancell was “fully owned” by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to a State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks.
Since Plouffe’s speeches, the U.S. government has become increasingly concerned that the Iranian government has used MTN operations or technology to help monitor dissidents.
MTN Group’s chief executive, Sifiso Dabengwa, said in a past statement that suggestions that the company has been involved in human rights violations in Iran are “false and offensive.”
However, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a leading critic of technology firms operating in Iran, told The Post in a statement late last week that MTN should be “blacklisted” because of evidence that it “provided technology to Iran used to repress the Iranian people.”
On Wednesday, Congress passed new sanctions on Iran with provisions that could apply to technology companies such as MTN. The bill awaits the president’s signature.