A day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a hero's welcome from more than 10,000 supporters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), members of the pro-Israel lobby hit Capitol Hill today to urge lawmakers to support tougher sanctions against Iran, among other measures.
And so it came as no great surprise that the U.S. State Department chose today to roll out a list of seven international firms facing U.S. sanctions for allegedly doing business with Iran.
There is, however, a curious twist in this particular list: two of the seven firms on the State Department list are owned by prominent Israeli businessmen. One is an Israeli shipping company called the Ofer Brothers Group, headed by Yehuda (Yuli) Ofer; the other is a company in Singapore called Tanker Pacific, owned by Sami Ofer (Yehuda Ofer's brother).
The United States accused the two Ofer-owned firms, along with a third company in Monaco called Associated Shipping, of selling an oil tanker to an Iranian-owned shipping line last year.
"The companies are being sanctioned for their respective roles in a September 2010 transaction that provided a tanker valued at $8.65 million to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), an entity that has been designated by the United States, and the European Union for its role in supporting Iran's proliferation activities," the State Department said in a fact sheet today.
"We believe that Tanker Pacific and Ofer Brothers Group failed to exercise due diligence and did not heed publicly available and easily obtainable information that would have indicated that they were dealing with IRISL," the fact sheet said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "will hold companies accountable, as required by the [Iran Sanctions Act], when they know or 'should have known' they were providing sanctionable goods or services to Iran," the department vowed.
The U.S. fact sheet also pointedly notes that these are the first sanctions the United States has imposed under toughened Iran sanctions legislation targeting Iran's refined petroleum industry that was passed by Congress--with strong support from the pro-Israel lobby--and signed by the President last year.
Asked if the timing of the announcement could in any way be read as a hint of resentment at the Israeli leader coming to Washington to lecture the administration and Congress on toughening sanctions on Iran, a senior U.S. official remained straight-faced as he professed nothing of the sort.
"The Israeli government was consulted during this process," he said on condition of anonymity. "Israel supports implementing tough sanctions against Iran."
The other companies the United States targeted for sanctions today include PCCI (based in Jersey/Iran); Royal Oyster Group (based in the United Arab Emirates), Speedy Ship (UAE/Iran), and Petróleos de Venezuela of Venezuela.
The sanctions prohibit the identified firms from securing financing from the U.S. Export-Import Bank, from obtaining loans for over $10 million from U.S. financial institutions--and from receiving U.S. export licenses.
The Ofer brothers reportedly denied the charges in a statement published by IsraelNationalNews.com: "We have never sold ships to Iran, and well-respected Israeli officials will certify this," the statement said.
Forbes magazine ranked Sami Ofer Israel's wealthiest man in 2008, valuing his fortune at $6.7 billion.