The Volkswagen AG (VW) logo sits on the steering wheel of a new VW e-Golf electric automobile as it is unveiled at the automaker’s factory in Dresden, Germany. (Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)

U.S. Says VW to Leave Iran in Symbolic Win for Trump

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration persuaded Volkswagen AG to comply with sanctions on Iran and end almost all of its business in the country, according to a U.S. official, a symbolically charged step in undercutting European Union efforts to keep the 2015 nuclear deal alive.

The U.S. and Volkswagen hammered out the final details on Tuesday after weeks of talks, according to U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who led discussions with the Wolfsburg-based company. Volkswagen will still be allowed to do some business in Iran under a humanitarian exception, Grenell added.

Grenell’s take on events wasn’t confirmed by Volkswagen, which merely said that it is closely monitoring the economic and political developments in Iran and the region.

“In this context, we also consider possible implications in connection with the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions,” VW said in an emailed statement Thursday. “Volkswagen complies with all applicable national and international laws and export regulations.”

Grenell said the car manufacturer has said it would comply with U.S. sanctions on Iran. “We are pleased with this decision because Iran diverts its economic resources away from its people to spread violence and instability across the globe,” he said.

While Volkswagen’s exposure to the Iranian market is small, the company’s decision is a symbolic blow that will only further undermine the European Union’s argument that Iran should remain in the nuclear agreement that lifted some economic restrictions on the country in exchange for limits on Tehran’s nuclear program.

President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord in May.

Volkswagen had announced in July 2017 that it planned to sell cars in Iran for the first time in 17 years, taking advantage of the removal of sanctions that accompanied the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear agreement is formally known. It signed a contract with local importer Mammut Khodro to offer the Tiguan compact SUV model as well as Passats at dealerships in and around Tehran.

Andreas Renschler, a Volkswagen board member who oversees the company’s commercial vehicle unit, announced on Tuesday that his division had suspended plans to expand into Iran.

Trump has warned countries they had to choose between doing business with the U.S., the world’s largest economy, or Iran. The administration deployed teams of officials from the departments of Treasury and State to lay the groundwork for the reimposition of sanctions lifted under the deal, targeting industries ranging from energy to chemicals to apparel.

Adidas, Daimler

European leaders have argued that even without the U.S., Iran should abide by the terms of the deal, but a key challenge has been to ensure it continues to get some benefit from staying in. European companies ranging from oil giant Total to Adidas AG, and Daimler AG have all said they will scale back or abandon the market, and Iranian leaders have complained that the Europeans haven’t done enough.

“BASF will continue to conduct business in Iran in compliance with all applicable legal regulations,” the German chemical maker said in a statement.

The move will make it even harder for European Union leaders led by Federica Mogherini, the high representative for foreign affairs, to persuade Iran to continue to abide by the terms of the deal. A senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified discussing American strategy toward Iran, said there was now no business left for the European Union to protect in Iran and that the U.S. had essentially won in its battle to persuade companies to leave.

Limited Aid

The official said that European nations and businesses are far more closely aligned with the U.S. than they are with the European Union on that issue. The official pointed to an August deal in which the European Union promised Iran $20 million in aid to counter the effects of U.S. sanctions as a clear sign of how little economic clout the bloc could bring to the struggle over U.S. sanctions.

The other major factor is Iranian oil exports. Washington is pressing other countries to zero out their imports of Iranian oil by Nov. 4, when sanctions related to Iran’s energy sector kick back into effect. Iranian oil exports have plunged by 35 percent since April, the month before Trump withdrew from the deal.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.