It looks like HSBC may be doing a bit of damage control in Foggy Bottom after its pro-Iran ad campaign sparked criticism from the media and foreign-policy experts. The bank’s controversial advertisement was discussed at a private meeting between HSBC CEO Niall Booker and Jose Fernandez, assistant secretary for economic energy and business affairs, at the State Department on Monday, a source familiar with the conversation told me.
HSBC’s spokesperson Robert Sherman declined to comment directly on whether the recent ad flap played a part in the discussion, saying only that “We have ongoing meetings with officials, sometimes at our request. This meeting was scheduled before the Iran ad articles.”
The ad in question claimed that “Only 4% of American films are made by women. In Iran it’s 25%,” and noted that the bank finds “potential in unexpected places.” Some interpreted this to mean that HSBC was pursuing investment opportunities in Iran, but the bank denied that was the ad’s intent.
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin reported on Dec. 26 that the bank has recently “drawn the attention of various regulators” and is currently “being probed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.” Regulators at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago also reportedly “found that the bank’s compliance program was ineffective and created ‘significant potential’ for money laundering and terrorist financing. This opened HSBC to the possibility that it was conducting transactions on behalf of sanctioned entities.”
While HSBC has already pulled the offending advertisement, it makes sense that it would want to smooth things over with the State Department. The department has been a vocal critic of the Iranian regime’s oppressive treatment of women and disregard for human rights, and it’s easy to see how the ad could have ruffled some feathers there.