The US lobby group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) has a well-earned reputation for being the profession’s bête noire.
In April 2010 the last Big Four firm with a presence in Iran, KPMG, severed ties with its affiliated firm Bayat Rayan.
The exodus steadily continued, reaching a tipping point in 2013 when international networks Nexia, Grant Thornton, RSM and Crowe Horwath followed suit.
Behind this exodus was UANI, whose chief executive, Mark Wallace told The Accountant: "Certainly, we were an encouraging force, but I’d like to think that those accountancy firms took what I see as a wise decision on their own volition."
Wallace, a former UN ambassador, described UANI’s lobby work as a "hard soft power" capable of affecting foreign policy where governments can’t or won’t act. Different sources and media reports link UANI with Jewish and pro-Israel groups.
The lobby group was created in 2008 when Wallace was friends with the late US diplomat Richard Holbrook, former CIA director Jim Woolsey and diplomat Dennis Ross among others.
The founders shared the strategy that by targeting the vulnerabilities of Iran’s economy, foreign policy could be influenced, he said, without considering American boots on the ground.
UANI has focused on every important business sector in Iran, from the oil industry, to the automobile sector, to the shipping industry.
"We’ve tried to run the gamut, and in many ways peel the onion of economic support, layer by layer," he said.
"And look, I think accounting firms were an important component of that. Obviously any large-scale project, infrastructure for example, is under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)," Wallace said.
He continued: "Those big projects are very difficult to finance and operate without financial statements, audit and serious accountancy. So hopefully these firms saw their responsibility in aiding and abetting the sustenance of that economy, and that they didn’t want to be participating in this."
One factor that needs to be considered regarding UANI’s naming and shaming campaign is to what extent could what the international accounting firms were doing be considered illegal. Would paying membership fees to an international network constitute any trading activity at all?
On the other hand, international accounting networks are typically formed by independent member firms. One of those member firms, based in a country where trading with Iran is not forbidden, could technically establish contact with Iranian peers.
Therefore, what’s really been achieved by UANI’s campaign against accounting firms? If, as different sources told TA, the Iranian profession has become more resilient as a result, then UANI’s campaign could have backfired.
If professional collaboration between colleagues and former colleagues is hypothetically possible, either through referrals or simple networking, then is not UANI’s campaign doomed to fail?
Wallace warned a vigilant eye is kept on all campaigns launched by UANI, including the one targeting accounting firms: "If the firms are engaging in support activities to Iranian practitioners and we found out about it, I think the risk to those firms is so monumental."
Many accounting firms, he added, do enormous amounts of work in the US, and otherwise they would be in a very vulnerable position:
"We would bring pressure to ensure that they didn’t have those opportunities in the US and the US government. From a business decision [perspective], if [firms] had a choice of doing business in the US or doing business in Iran, they would be a little bit foolish not to take the US."
However, if the international accounting firms weren’t doing anything illegal why didn’t they stand up and fight back, uniting against the challenge posed by lobby groups such as UANI?
If the demands of those lobby groups were beyond what could be considered reasonable, why wasn’t there a united voice from the profession defending the legitimate right to have a member firm in Iran?
Didn’t UANI’s challenge represent one of those occasions when the global profession should put aside industry squabbles and respond in unison?