Since Plouffe’s speeches, MTN Group has come under intensified scrutiny from U.S. authorities because of its activities in Iran and Syria, which are under international sanctions intended to limit the countries’ access to sensitive technology. At the time of Plouffe’s speeches, MTN had been in a widely reported partnership for five years with a state-
owned Iranian telecommunications firm.
There were no legal or ethical restrictions on Plouffe being paid to speak to the MTN subsidiary as a private citizen. But for a close Obama aide to have accepted payment from a company involved in Iran could prove troublesome for the president as the White House toughens its stance toward the Islamic republic. In recent weeks, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has accused the administration of being soft on Iran.
The White House declined to make Plouffe available for an interview. Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said Sunday that criticizing Plouffe would be unfair because MTN Group’s role in Iran was not a high-profile issue when he was invited to speak to the affiliate.
“He gave two speeches on mobile technology and digital communications and had no separate meetings with the company’s leadership,” Schultz said in a statement to The Washington Post. “At the time, not even the most zealous watchdog group on this issue had targeted the Iranian business interests of the host’s holding company. Criticism of Mr. Plouffe now for issues and controversies that developed only years later is simply misplaced.”
White House officials said in an e-mail that Plouffe referred the proposed speech to his lawyer for review before accepting the invitation. The e-mail said Plouffe’s lawyer advised that MTN’s business dealings did not raise any issues “that would weigh against acceptance of the proposed speaking engagement.”
White House officials said it is not unusual for Washington figures to receive similar fees for speeches. They note that senior officials in the George W. Bush administration had been paid for speeches by companies doing business in Iran.
Plouffe has had no role in administration discussions on whether MTN Group or other companies might be sanctioned because of its activities in Iran, the officials said.
MTN executives denied violating any sanctions but acknowledged that they have been in discussions with administration authorities for months.
Paul Norman, a spokesman for MTN Group, said that the company sought Plouffe’s participation “because of his expertise and his knowledge of the U.S. political scene. It was part of a program of such speakers that MTN Nigeria invited to attend their senior management events. It had no connection or relevance to Iran.”