Haley Barbour’s Lobby Shop Had Ties to Iranian Nuclear Efforts
GOP power broker Haley Barbour’s lobby shop, BGR Group, represents a Russian bank that has financed a company that helped build Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, according to corporate documents and lobbying disclosure records. The bank is owned by a secretive oligarch, Mikhail Fridman, who has met at least twice with White House officials in the last few years, according to visitor logs.
Barbour, one of the most influential Republicans within the party, considered a bid for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination and has been speculated about as a possible vice-presidential pick. Last year, he called Iran “the number one threat to peace and stability.”
It’s a measure of how much political saber-rattling in Washington is tempered by the lure of lobbying dollars that his firm represents a bank that has apparently helped fund Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
Fridman’s Alfa Bank is the largest private bank in Russia and has helped make its owner one of the richest men in the world. The London Sunday Times has called Fridman’s company Alfa Group, which owns Alfa Bank, “one of the most controversial business empires on the planet.”
Alfa Bank has been a client of BGR Group since 2002, according to lobbying disclosure records. Barbour was elected governor of Mississippi in November 2003, left the firm, and took office in January 2004. After two gubernatorial terms, he returned to his Washington lobby shop this year. During his time as governor, Barbour continued to receive payments related to his past BGR Group activities through a blind trust — payments of at least $300,000 per year, according to the trust agreement.
In the mid-2000s, according to its own public reports, Alfa Bank provided financing to Atomstroyexport, a state-controlled Russian company that was a major player in Iran’s developing nuclear energy program.
The relationship between Alfa and Atomstroyexport included “loans” and other client “services,” according to Alfa reports from 2006 and 2007.
When first approached about this story, Jeffrey Birnbaum, the top spokesman for BGR Group, and a former Wall Street Journal reporter who specialized in in-depth coverage of lobbying, dismissed any effort to link BGR, Alfa and Iran as misguided.
“Just because Alfa bank had a line of credit with an entity that did business with Iran does not make Alfa a financier of Iran’s nuclear program,” Birnbaum told HuffPost via email. “The last time Alfa had any contact with any part of this was way back in 2008.” He said the bank chose to back away from what he dubbed “even the bank shot connections” after the United Nations Security Council voted to sanction Iran.
Birnbaum also cited a denial the company gave to Fox News in 2007 when Fox reported that Fridman was “a key figure in Russia’s dangerous policy of selling nuclear technology to the Islamic Republic of Iran” and that Alfa Bank “serves as the primary financial agent for the nuclear power project.” (The Fox News article did not note the connection between Alfa Bank and BGR Group, focusing mostly on Alfa’s telecommunications ambitions.)
Alfa’s 2007 statement denied that it was the “primary” source of financing for Iran’s nuclear program and insisted that Fox had “erroneously suggested that Alfa-Bank, and by extension its Chairman, Mikhail Fridman, and the Alfa Group as a whole, plays a principal and central role in the development of Iran’s nuclear power program and the sale of aircraft to the government of Iran.”
Birnbaum forwarded detailed questions from HuffPost to Alfa Bank’s CEO. (He didn’t identify the CEO by name, but the bank’s current chief is Rushan Khvesyuk.) The CEO replied, through Birnbaum, that Alfa Bank no longer has investments inside Iran and that all “indirect contact” ended after the 2008 U.N. sanctions.
The CEO otherwise declined to supply specific details about the nature and breadth of the bank’s connection to Atomstroyexport and another state-run nuclear entity, Rosatom, with which Alfa Bank had announced an arrangement.
“Alfa has had a relationship only with Atomstroyexport, not the others,” the CEO replied via Birnbaum. “With Rosatom, it was all words, nothing happened. Bank laws prohibit Alfa from answering the question about how much money it’s made available.”
Birnbaum also declined several requests to clarify what exactly the funds supplied by Alfa Bank to Atomstroyexport were intended for or what BGR knew about them. Without that information, it is impossible to know whether the funds were specifically applied to the Iran power plant program.
Atomstroyexport’s actions during this time, however, are not in dispute: It finished the construction of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, the centerpiece of Iran’s nuclear program.