Published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, NBC News and the Center for Public Integrity, October 3, 2016
By Sasha Chavkin, Michael Hudson and Dave Levinthal
Donald Trump’s real estate organization rented New York office space from 1998 to 2003 to an Iranian bank that U.S. authorities have linked to terrorist groups and Iran’s nuclear program.
Trump inherited Bank Melli, one of Iran’s largest state-controlled banks, as a tenant when he purchased the General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, according to public records reviewed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Center for Public Integrity. The Trump Organization kept the bank on as a tenant for four more years after the U.S. Treasury Department designated Bank Melli in 1999 as being controlled by the Iranian government.
U.S. officials later alleged that Bank Melli had been used to obtain sensitive materials for Iran’s nuclear program. U.S. authorities also alleged that the bank had been used between 2002 and 2006 to funnel money to a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that has sponsored terrorist attacks — a period that overlapped with the time the bank rented office space from Trump.
The Trump Organization’s dealings with the Iranian bank shed more light on Trump’s wide-ranging business interests, which sometimes stand at odds with his blunt declarations on the campaign trail. Trump has denounced Iran as a “big enemy,” blasted Hillary Clinton for not taking a harder line against the Iranian regime and charged that donations from foreign governments to the Clinton Foundation amounted to evidence of corruption. His five-year stint as Bank Melli’s landlord provides an example of the Trump Organization itself doing business with a government hostile to the United States.
“It’s a pretty hypocritical position to take,” said Richard Nephew, who served from 2013 to 2015 as principal deputy coordinator of sanctions policy at the U.S. State Department and spent nearly a decade working on Iran sanctions in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “It suggests that his principles are pretty flexible when it comes to him getting paid.”
A court document obtained by ICIJ indicates that Bank Melli’s rent on more than 8,000 square feet on the GM Building’s 44th floor may have topped half a million dollars a year.
The legal ramifications of the Trump Organization taking rent payments from Bank Melli are unclear.
At the time, the U.S. had a sweeping embargo in place which prohibited Americans from doing business with Iran, including receiving rent payments. However, some Iranian organizations were granted licenses exempting specific transactions from sanctions. If the payments were licensed, it may have been legally difficult for the Trump Organization to evict the bank.
The Treasury Department does not publicly disclose individual licenses granting companies exemptions from sanctions rules. The Treasury Department, the Trump campaign and Bank Melli all declined to answer whether the agency had issued a license to the Trump Organization or the bank permitting rent payments during Trump’s ownership of the building.
The Trump campaign declined to answer any questions about Bank Melli for this story, but said Trump would take steps to avoid any conflicts of interest with his business dealings if he is elected president.
“Mr. Trump’s sole focus is and will be on making our country great again,” campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in an email. “He has already committed to putting his assets in a blind trust and will have no involvement whatsoever in the Trump Organization.”
Bank Melli did not respond to repeated telephone and email inquiries by ICIJ to its offices in Tehran, London and Paris.
Bank Melli’s office in the GM Building was listed by the Treasury Department among financial institutions “owned or controlled” by the Iranian government and subject to U.S. economic sanctions, according to the Code of Federal Regulations from the years 1999 through2003. Trump owned the GM Building from July 1998 untilSeptember 2003, New York City property records show.
Under U.S. sanctions rules, Bank Melli was forbidden from conducting banking transactions within the U.S., but the bank may have maintained its New York offices in the hope that the U.S. government would someday ease sanctions against Iranian businesses.
The bank moved out of the GM Building sometime after 2003. A spokesperson for Boston Properties, Inc., which is currently the building’s majority owner, said Bank Melli was not a tenant when Boston Properties and other partners bought the building in 2008.
Bank’s ties to terror
U.S. sanctions against Iran date back to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Islamic fundamentalists seized power and held more than 50 Americans hostage for more than a year. After briefly lifting restrictions when the hostages were released, President Ronald Reagan designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and imposed new sanctions in 1984 and 1987.
At the time, Donald Trump called for the U.S. take a tougher line against the Iranian regime.
In 1987, he suggested in a speech in New Hampshire that the U.S. should attack Iran and seize some of its oil fields to hit back for what he described as Iran’s bullying of America.
“I’d be harsh on Iran. They’ve been beating us psychologically, making us look a bunch of fools,” Trump told The Guardian in 1988. “It’d be good for the world to take them on.”
In the years that followed, Iran stepped up its support for international terrorist attacks, according to authorities in the U.S. and other Western nations.
In 1994, a suicide bomber killed 85 people at a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, an attack that Argentine prosecutors later charged was coordinated by the Iranian government.
In 1996, a truck bomb killed 19 American servicemen at the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Saudi Arabia. A U.S. court later held that the bombing had been “planned, funded, and sponsored by senior leadership in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
As Iran supported terror attacks abroad, the U.S. moved to punish the regime economically. President Bill Clinton approved a sweeping embargo in 1995 that banned Americans from conducting trade with Iranian businesses.
Bank Melli, one of Iran’s largest state-owned banks, had long had an office in the GM Building in midtown Manhattan. In 1998, Trump’s real estate organization bought the building and inherited Bank Melli as a tenant.
It is not clear if Trump knew personally that Bank Melli was renting an office from his company, but he was the Trump Organization’s chairman and president, and has described himself as a hands-on manager who pays attention to details.
Nephew, who worked on sanctions and nuclear nonproliferation issues for the U.S. government from 2003 to 2015, said there was less awareness in the 1990s about Iran’s nuclear program and the role of banks in financing terrorism. But he said that accepting payments from Bank Melli should have raised a red flag, even in 1998.
“Should someone in America have known better than to do business with Iran? Yeah,” Nephew said.
George Ross, the longtime executive vice-president of the Trump Organization, said he was not aware that Bank Melli had been a Trump tenant.
“We had any number of tenants in the GM Building,” Ross said in a brief telephone interview. “They might have been in there, but I have no knowledge of them.”
Emanuele Ottolenghi, an expert on Iran at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said that it was “remarkable” that the Trump Organization had kept Bank Melli as a tenant for four years after the Treasury Department had listed the bank as an Iran-controlled entity.
“I just don’t think that a company of that size and means should be able to hide behind a ‘we didn’t know’ kind of argument,” Ottolenghi said.
In 2007, U.S. authorities charged that Bank Melli had facilitated purchases for Iran’s nuclear program, and that it had been used to send at least $100 million to the Quds Force, the feared special operations unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
The Quds Force was designated as a supporter of terrorism by President George W. Bush weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for providing support to the Taliban, Hamas and Hezbollah, groups that the U.S. has labeled as terrorist organizations.
Bank Melli played an important role in Iran’s nuclear program and support for international terrorism in the years before it was singled out by Treasury in 2007, experts told ICIJ.
“It was allowing the entities that were shopping for the regime to make payments,” said Ottolenghi, who described Bank Melli as “critical” to Iran’s past nuclear and terrorist activities.
A representative for Glodow Nead Communications, a public relations firm representing the Trump Organization, told an ICIJ reporter that the Trump Organization would only comment if the story was positive. She declined as a matter of policy to provide contact information for any of its employees.
The Trump Organization continued renting office space to Bank Melli until the insurance company Conseco, which had provided financing for the 1998 purchase, took control of the GM Building in 2003 and sold it to the Macklowe Organization, a New York City real estate developer.
Trump talks Iran
As a presidential candidate, Trump has been a fierce critic of Iran, denouncing its government as “the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism.” He has vowed to take a more warlike posture against the regime, threatening on Sept. 9 to shoot Iranian ships out the water if their sailors made rude gestures toward U.S. Navy ships.
Last week, during the first of three face-to-face debates with Clinton, Trump panned the United States’2015 nuclear deal with Iran, calling it “one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history.”
In June, a statement by the Trump campaign blasted Clinton for her work in support of the Iran nuclear deal after the airline Iran Air struck an agreement to purchase aircraft from Boeing, a company that has contributed to the Clinton Foundation.
“This is another example of Clinton’s pay-to-play governing style,” the Trump campaign said. “She will cut deals with our foreign adversaries as long as they are willing to line her pockets.”
At the same time, news reports published in the course of the presidential campaign have shown that the Trump Organization has been entangled with a number of foreign governments that are hostile to the United States.
Trump tried to raise money for the Trump Organization from the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator who provided support for the 1988 Pan Am flight bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 189 Americans, Buzzfeed News reported in June.
A company owned by Trump violated the embargo against Cuba with a business trip to the island in 1998, shortly before he gave a speech in Miami expressing his support for the embargo, Newsweekreported in September. In addition, Bloomberg News has reported that Trump Organization executives may have also violated the Cuban embargo by scouting out a possible investment in a golf course near Havana in late 2012 or early 2013. The deal ultimately fell through, according to the report.
The Trump Organization has also made millions selling apartments to the government of Saudi Arabia, the New York Daily News reported in September. The Saudi government is formally a U.S. ally but is suspected of supporting militant Islamic groups, and Trump has called on the Clinton Foundation to return Saudi donations because of the government’s poor human rights record.
Other Trump Organization entanglements in India, Russia and Dubai create conflicts of interest that could threaten American national security if Trump becomes president, Newsweek reported in September.
Information on all of these ventures is limited because Trump has not released his tax returns. He is poised to become the first major party candidate not to do so by Election Day since Richard Nixon in 1972.
Trump pledged on Sept. 15 that he would “absolutely sever” his connections with the Trump Organization if he is elected president. “I will sever connections, and I’ll have my children and my executives run the company and I won’t discuss it with them,” he said on the television program “Fox and Friends.”