Raleigh, N.C. — The Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved a bill banning the state from investing in or contracting with companies that do business with Iran's energy sector. Skeptics say the bill is nothing more than a political dig at the Obama administration.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a supporter of the bill, made an unusual committee appearance to speak in its favor.
"Iran has provided arms to Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which have a primary goal of the elimination of Israel in the Middle East – obviously one of our greatest, if not our best, ally in the Middle East," Forest told the committee,
Forest warned that the development of nuclear weapons by Iran would be "catastrophic to both Israel and the United States."
"Less than a month ago, during negotiations with the United States on nuclear activity in Iran, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei once again declared 'Death to America,'" he said. "So, we are very well informed about their intentions."
The proposal, Senate Bill 455, would instruct the State Treasurer's Office to divest all state funds from investments in companies that do business with Iran. It also requires the office to compile a list of all known people or businesses that have invested $20 million in, extended $20 million in credit to, or sold $20 million in supplies to Iran's energy sector, from oil and gas to nuclear energy. The state would be banned from entering or renewing a contract with or investing in any company on the list.
However, liaisons for the Treasurer's Office told the committee the state divested from all Iran-related companies several years ago, and sponsor Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, said he did not believe it would affect any current or known future state contracts, either.
The state's authority to pass such a bill comes from a federal law passed in 2010. Gunn couldn't say why the state had waited five years to act on that authority.
Gunn told the committee the bill would "send a message to our allies and to the taxpayers of the state of North Carolina and the United States that we will not tolerate this type of behavior."
Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, scoffed at moves by the Obama administration and other countries to "ease up" on sanctions against Iran.
"We're talking about relaxing some sanctions to get a deal. Sanctions are the only thing that brought them to the table," Tillman said.
He said the state's "sanctions," as he put it, would be "a very good thing. I wish every state would do this."
Democrats on the committee voted for the bill but voiced skepticism about the motives behind it.
"It sounds like we're trying to solve a problem that doesn't truly exist," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. "I wonder the extent to which this is more about political gamesmanship in terms of what's going on in Washington."
"What would be the harm?" Tillman retorted, saying that putting current practice into law on the books would ensure that future state leaders would follow the policy.
Although the bill passed the committee unanimously, McKissick said later that Senate leaders should "rethink this whole intervention," calling it "untimely."
"I think it's a particularly bad time to intervene in a national issue when we really ought to focus on state business," he said. "Lowering the unemployment rate, making sure there are jobs available for people, doing what we can to get money back in their pockets that they're losing because of tax reform.
"Why we're talking about Iran's nuclear negotiations is beyond me. We don't even have power to deal with that in the General Assembly," he added.
The bill could be heard in Senate Pensions Committee later this week.