Kicking the Hornet’s Nest: Consequences of Trump’s May 12 Iran Deal Decision

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President Trump has threatened to put the U.S. into material breach of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by failing to renew nuclear sanctions waivers by the May 12 deadline. As a result, it is necessary for policymakers to think clearly regarding the consequences of a U.S. material breach of the accord, including the collapse of the JCPOA, Iranian nuclear expansion, diminished U.S. influence with its allies, and a growing threat of war under Trump and his hawkish advisors.

Immediate Breach of the Accord

If the President refuses to waive sanctions on May 12, nuclear-related sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran passed via Section 1245 of the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would snap back into place, resulting in an immediate material breach of the JCPOA. Under this provision, countries must reduce their oil purchases from Iran or the U.S. will cut off that country’s financial institutions that transact with Iranian banks from the American economy. This would not reimpose all of the sanctions that the U.S. is obligated to waive – the next sanctions waiver deadline is 60 days later and pertains to the vast majority of nuclear-related sanctions. But by targeting both oil sales and banking, driving down oil sales and forcing companies to withdraw from the Iranian market, the U.S. would not just violate the agreement but would be unravelling the core of Iran’s incentives to remain compliant with the terms of the JCPOA.

Even if the administration seeks to dull the initial impact by delaying enforcement, as some have suggested may be its plan, the failure to waive will result in a material breach of the agreement. The text of the JCPOA also makes clear that a failure to waive sanctions on May 12 would result in an immediate breach. The U.S. is obligated to “cease the application” of  nuclear-related sanctions including the Central Bank sanctions contained in Section 1245 of the FY12 NDAA. Moreover, the U.S. has committed to “refrain from re-introducing or re-imposing the sanctions” lifted under the deal, while the JCPOA indicates Iran will treat such re-imposition “as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.” As former administration officials Rob Malley and Colin Kahl recently wrote, “in the absence of Iranian violations of the deal, the United States would be in material breach of the agreement the moment Trump refuses to waive U.S. sanctions, even as the deal’s other signatories remain party to it.”

The Trump administration has already violated the JCPOA repeatedly by any objective measure, including by actively warning foreign companies against doing any business in Iran, refusing to issue licenses for the sale of aircraft to Iran and holding U.S. implementation of the accord in doubt. While these violations have been serious, they have not struck directly at the core of the bargain. Reinstating oil sanctions would be a direct attack on the core benefit and put the U.S. in material breach.

Death of the Deal

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has indicated that if the U.S. withdraws from the accord, Iran will do the same. The JCPOA includes a dispute resolution mechanism wherein Iran would be able to file an official complaint regarding U.S. failure to meet its sanctions-lifting obligations, a forum where the U.S. would be isolated following a U.S. breach. If Trump refused to correct the breach, Iran “could treat the unresolved issue as grounds to cease performing its commitments, in whole or in part, and/or notify the UN Security Council that it believes the issue constitutes significant non-performance,” according to the text of the agreement. In other words, Iran would have sufficient grounds to orchestrate a withdrawal from its JCPOA obligations while pinning the blame on the United States.

Other Iranian officials have suggested that Iran will resume many of its nuclear activities that deeply concerned the international community prior to the JCPOA. While it is unclear precisely how far Iran would go, Iran could:

  • Bring advanced centrifuges online or resume enrichment at the deeply-buried Fordow nuclear site;
  • Begin enriching uranium beyond 3.67%, potentially up to 20% or higher;
  • Expand beyond 300 kg of enriched uranium to sufficient quantities for multiple nuclear weapons with further enrichment;
  • Limit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector access, including access to suspect undeclared sites, uranium mines and mills and centrifuge production facilities.

Iranian officials have also suggested that their commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty – the foundation of the non-proliferation regime – could be jeopardized by a JCPOA withdrawal. While that would be an extreme measure that could ratchet up tensions significantly, the possibility cannot be ruled out in the event of a shocking unilateral U.S. rupture of a carefully-crafted diplomatic agreement that was narrowly secured against the opposition of many hardline interests in Tehran..

Isolated from Allies

It is no coincidence that both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Washington the same week, shortly before the May 12 deadline, to speak with Trump about the JCPOA. America’s European allies are extremely concerned that Trump will follow through and terminate a deal that is in the best interests of the transatlantic relationship, global security and the nonproliferation regime, with devastating results.

Macron has made clear that he is willing to work with Trump to address issues outside the scope of the JCPOA, including Iran’s missile program and regional security issues such as Syria, as part of a “grand bargain.” There are numerous uncertainties regarding Macron’s approach – after all, Iran would likely be unwilling to engage on a new deal when the U.S. has failed to implement the JCPOA. However, it is also clear that the U.S. would forfeit such coordination with its allies if the foundation of the JCPOA is terminated by a unilateral U.S. withdrawal, as Macron warned is still the most likely outcome.

As more than 500 members of the United Kingdom, French and German parliaments recently warned in an unprecedented letter to the U.S. Congress, “if the deal breaks down, it will well-nigh be impossible to assemble another grand coalition built around sanctions against Iran. We must preserve what took us a decade to achieve and has proven to be effective.” Absent the leverage provided by close cooperation with our allies, there is no chance for a “better deal,” and serious risks that there would be no deal after the JCPOA whatsoever.

If Trump follows through and terminates the JCPOA, the U.S. will be put in the difficult position of threatening sanctions on the foremost companies of many friendly countries – including those in Europe, South Korea, India and beyond. This could result in a trade war if those countries take actions to protect their companies from U.S. sanctions enforcement. Moreover, as former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned in 2016, “if foreign jurisdictions and companies feel that we will deploy sanctions without sufficient justification or for inappropriate reasons—secondary sanctions in particular—we should not be surprised if they look for ways to avoid doing business in the United States or in U.S. dollars.”

Another War of Choice    

The elevation of John Bolton to National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo to Secretary of State ensures that at least two individuals who prefer an Iran war to Iran diplomacy will be advising Trump on the JCPOA and broader Iran policy. Moreover, Trump himself has previewed his hawkish inclinations, warning that if Iran restarts their nuclear program “they will have bigger problems than they ever had before” and “if Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid.” In unraveling the nuclear accord and freeing Iran to resume their nuclear activities, Trump would be triggering the very situation where he strongly hinted that he would use military force.

Amid an already ruinous regional proxy war in the Middle East, a war against Iran could be even more disastrous for global security than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iran is nearly four times the size of Iraq, with influence in military conflicts from Syria to Yemen and with missiles capable of striking U.S. ships and bases in the region. Bombing cannot erase Iran’s nuclear know-how and would only empower those in Iran eager to obtain a nuclear deterrent. Moreover, it would set the region aflame and draw the U.S. into a prolonged quagmire that would cost American blood and treasure and set U.S. security back decades.

Congress can intervene to check Trump, including by clarifying that the administration does not have authorization to launch a war against Iran. Yet, the clock is quickly running out to save the JCPOA and prevent an escalation to war.

 

NIAC Pushes for Broader Sanctions Exemptions for Humanitarian Relief

Washington, DC – In response to Iran’s deadly 2017 earthquake in Kermanshah province, hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens donated to humanitarian relief efforts to rebuild devastated areas. Humanitarian relief efforts have long been exempt from U.S. sanctions law, though in practice there continue to be sanctions-related hurdles both in how American citizens contribute to relief efforts and how humanitarian NGO’s are able to finance relief work on the ground. On numerous occasions, NIAC has raised concerns regarding these complications and pushed the administration to ensure that U.S. sanctions were not standing in the way of urgent relief. In November, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and four other Senators led a letter urging the administration to broaden its sanctions exemptions to facilitate relief.

On March 22, the Department of Treasury solicited feedback on the effectiveness of its current licensing procedures for humanitarian aid to Iran and Sudan. Given the importance of this issue to both the people of Iran and the Iranian-American community, NIAC submitted comments recommending opportunities for improvements, including by encouraging the Treasury Department to authorize a direct banking channel between the U.S. and Iran to finance relief work. This is of critical importance, as we have heard directly from humanitarian organizations regarding the continued difficulty of finding banks willing to transact with them given the perceived risk of running afoul of U.S. sanctions.

We will continue to work to advance our recommendations and ensure that U.S. sanctions do not inadvertently impede humanitarian relief to the people of Iran. You can see the text of NIAC’s comment below:

ATTN: Request for Comments (TSRA)
Office of Foreign Assets Control
United States Department of the Treasury
Freedman’s Bank Building
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20220

Re: NIAC’s Comments Regarding OFAC’s TSRA Licensing Procedures

Dear Sir or Madam:

            On March 22, 2018, the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) announced that it was “soliciting comments on the effectiveness of OFAC’s licensing procedures for the exportation of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Sudan and Iran.”[1]  OFAC is required to solicit such comments as part of its biennial report to Congress on the operation of the licensing procedures pursuant to § 906 of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (“TSRA”) and will consider any such comments during the development of its report to Congress.  

By means of this instant submission, the National Iranian American Council (“NIAC”), the largest grassroots organization in the United States representing the interests of Iranian Americans, submits its comments regarding the effectiveness of OFAC’s licensing procedures for the export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Iran for the time period between October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2016. NIAC submits such comments with the sole intent of encouraging the robust facilitation of humanitarian trade between the United States and Iran in order to benefit the Iranian people, as is the purpose of the underlying TSRA legislation.

  1. Factual Background

            The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (“TSRA”), 22 U.S.C. § 7201 et seq., terminates any unilateral agricultural sanction or unilateral medical sanction in effect as of October 28, 2000 against a foreign country or foreign entity and prohibits the President from imposing any such unilateral agricultural sanction or unilateral medical sanction unless a proposed sanction is enacted into law by a joint resolution of the Congress.[2]  However, this provision does not direct the termination of, or prohibit the imposition of, any unilateral agricultural sanction or unilateral medical sanction that prohibits, restricts, or conditions the provision or use of any agricultural commodity, medicine, or medical device that is controlled on the United States Munitions List (“USML”), controlled on any control list established by the Export Administration Act of 1979 (“EAA”) or any successor statute, or used to facilitate the development or production of chemical or biological weapons or weapons of mass destruction.[3]

            Moreover, TSRA provides that the export of agricultural commodities, medicine, or medical devices to Cuba or to any U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism shall only be made pursuant to one (1) year licenses issued by the U.S. government for contracts entered into during the one (1) year period of the license and shipped within the twelve (12) month period beginning on the date of the signing of the contract.[4]  OFAC applies the licensing procedures required by this latter provision to all exports and re-exports of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to U.S.-designated state sponsors of terrorism – including Iran and Sudan – that are within the current scope of OFAC’s licensing jurisdiction.[5]

            Iran remains a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism; and, as such, TSRA’s licensing procedures are applicable to the export of agricultural commodities, medicine, or medical devices to Iran.  These licensing procedures are codified in the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (“ITSR”), 31 C.F.R. Part 560.  Section 560.530 of the ITSR promulgates a general license and specific licensing procedure for the sale, export, and re-export to Iran of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices, while § 560.532 of the ITSR identifies authorized means of making payment for and financing any such licensed sales, exports, or re-exports of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Iran. 

  1. NIAC’s Comments Regarding OFAC’s TSRA Licensing Procedures

            The most significant impediment to U.S. person engagement in humanitarian trade with Iran remains the lack of a financial channel to remit payment for humanitarian goods.  Despite licensing the making of payments and financing for sales, exports, and re-exports of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Iran, OFAC’s licensing procedures have failed to provide U.S. persons with reliable options for receiving payment for the provision of permissible humanitarian items to Iran.  Unable to reliably receive payment for their provision of humanitarian goods to Iran or receive financing to permit the sale of such humanitarian items to Iran, a substantial number of U.S. persons that otherwise would have made use of OFAC’s licensing procedures for humanitarian trade with Iran have elected not to pursue such trade.  This undermines U.S. foreign policy interests vis-à-vis Iran, as well as the purposes underlying TSRA’s legislation, by enacting a de facto embargo on the sale, export, or re-export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Iran. 

            Pursuant to 31 C.F.R. § 560.532(a), OFAC provides general license authorization for the following payments terms for sales authorized under § 560.530(a)

(1)       Payment of cash in advance;

(2)       Sales on open account, provided that the account receivable may not be transferred to the person extending the credit;

(3)       Financing by third-country financial institutions that are not U.S. persons, entities owned or controlled by U.S. persons and established or maintained outside the United States, Iranian financial institutions, or the Government of Iran.  Such financing may be confirmed or advised by U.S. financial institutions and by financial institutions that are entities owned or controlled by U.S. persons and established or maintained outside the United States; or

(4)       Letter of credit issued by an Iranian financial institution whose property and interests in property are blocked solely pursuant to 31 C.F.R. Part 560. Such letter of credit must be initially advised, confirmed, or otherwise dealt in by a third-country financial institution that is not a U.S. person, an entity owned or controlled by a U.S. person and established or maintained outside the U.S., an Iranian financial institution, or the Government of Iran before it is advised, confirmed, or dealt in by a U.S. financial institution or a financial institution that is an entity owned or controlled by a U.S. person and established or maintained outside the United States. 

Section 560.532(c)(2) further states that “[n]othing in this section authorizes payment terms or trade financing involving debits or credits to Iranian accounts, as defined in § 560.320.” 

            OFAC’s licensing procedures prohibit direct interaction between U.S. and Iranian financial institutions, as evidenced above.  Indeed, OFAC itself has stated that “it is contrary to U.S. foreign policy to allow U.S. financial institutions to maintain active correspondent relationships with Iranian banks.”  As a result, any financing for or receipt of payment from the licensed export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Iran must involve a third-country financial institution prior to the involvement of a U.S. financial institution, and U.S. person engagement in humanitarian trade involving Iran is contingent on the willingness of third-country financial institutions to issue letters of credit or otherwise process transactions involving the export or re-export of agricultural commodities, medicine, or medical devices from the United States or by a U.S. person, wherever located, to Iran.

            Unfortunately, OFAC has ample precedent at this time demonstrating that third-country financial institutions are generally unwilling to aid U.S. persons seeking to engage in humanitarian trade with Iran authorized pursuant to 31 C.F.R. § 560.530(a).  As a result, U.S. persons have not taken advantage of the permitted trade openings to the extent that would otherwise be possible if there were a reliable, authorized financial channel to remit funds from Iran to the United States.  OFAC has been presented with numerous options to resolve this ongoing problem, including, but not limited to, a direct financial channel between the United States and Iran for licensed dealings between the two countries.  For reasons that remain unclear, OFAC has chosen not to pursue these solutions and has persisted with an authorization that fails to produce the desired outcome.

            It is NIAC’s hope that OFAC will revisit its licensing procedures, including, most especially, its authorization for making payments and financing for the export and re-export of agricultural commodities, medicines, and medical devices to Iran, and will broaden the scope of current license authorizations to ensure that U.S. persons are able to timely and reliably receive payment and financing for humanitarian trade with Iran.

            III.      Conclusion

            NIAC submits this comment pursuant to OFAC’s March 22, 2018 Request for Comment and hopes that the agency will consider this feedback concerning its TSRA licensing procedures.  It is our considered view that while the agency has made important progress expanding the scope of license authorizations relating to the sale, export, and re-export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Iran – including by broadening the scope of medical devices that are generally authorized for export or re-export to Iran – OFAC should ensure that these license authorizations can be fully utilized by ensuring reliable options exist for making payments for and financing the export of such humanitarian items.  For the reasons explained above, NIAC believes that OFAC’s license authorizations have been under-utilized as a result of the lack of a reliable financial channel to facilitate payments for humanitarian items, and only new solutions – including, for example, a direct financial channel between the United States and Iran – can ease this ongoing problem for U.S. exporters and re-exporters.

[1]Effectiveness of Licensing Procedures for Exportation of Agricultural Commodities, Medicine, and Medical Devices to Sudan and Iran; Comment Request, U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, 83 Fed. Reg.12513, March 22, 2018, available athttps://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2018-03-22/pdf/2018-05638.pdf.

[2]See 22 U.S.C. § 7201 et seq.

[3]Resource Center: Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSRA) Program, U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, January 13, 2017, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/programs/pages/tsra_info.aspx. See also22 U.S.C. § 7203.

[4]22 U.S.C. § 7205.

[5]Resource Center: Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSRA) Program, U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, January 13, 2017, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/programs/pages/tsra_info.aspx.

 

Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument on Muslim Ban

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral argument in the case of Trump v. Hawaii challenging the constitutionality of Presidential Proclamation 9645, otherwise known as Muslim Ban 3.0.

Americans and impacted communities have been fighting back against Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban for over a year, and today is the culmination of our collective efforts. By June of this year, we will learn whether the Supreme Court will allow a Muslim Ban to forever be enshrined into law as a shameful American moral and ethical blunder.

Lawyers on both sides argued their positions today on three key questions presented to the Court: First, whether the President’s travel ban is justiciable. In order for a case to be justiciable, there is a requirement that there be some existing controversy between the parties, that the case be neither premature or a case where the threat of injury has been removed, and that the case does not ask the court to make a determination of a political question. The Supreme Court also heard argument about whether the travel ban violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Solicitor general, Noel Francisco, arguing on behalf of the government relied heavily on the argument that there was a wide, multi-agency, international review conducted to determine which countries would be designated under the travel ban for failing to meet a baseline of information sharing, and added that the vast majority of Muslim countries were excluded from the ban. Justice Sotomayor pushed back early and asked if the government could represent that no other country that failed to meet the cooperation test was excluded from the travel restrictions. The government responded that Somalia and Iraq were excluded under the “tailored nature” of the ban, also making reference to Chad being taken off of the list of banned countries.

Justice Kagan joined in with a hypothetical of an “out-of-the-box kind of president” posed to the government: suppose a president is elected after a vehemently anti-semitic campaign where the candidate regularly disparaged Jews. The president then asked his staff to issue recommendations for security and what emerged was a travel ban on Israeli’s. The government responded that it was a tough hypothetical and he was not sure that this type of ban would survive rational basis scrutiny because of Israel being a close ally. Justice Kagan went on to say that this hypothetical, bearing a strong resemblance to President Trump, would not be about what is in the president’s heart, rather what the reasonable observer of the president’s conduct would think.

Justice Sotomayor pressed the government hard on the Kagan hypothetical questioning why the actions of the committee charged with finding a way to keep Jews out should not be subject to great suspicion and thorough review given that the committee is responsible to the president and they have been told what the outcome of their responsibility must be. Justice Sotomayor also eluded to the worldwide review report that served as the basis for the Presidential Proclamation and how it has been kept confidential and not been shared with either the litigants or the courts.

Justice Kennedy followed up on the hypothetical asking the government whether challengers, under that scenario, could bring claims under the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses, which the government conceded that they could.

The questioning later shifted to Trump’s campaign statements. The government asserted that the Presidential Proclamation is “very transparent” and that statements made by candidate Trump are “out of bounds” for consideration by the court. The government’s reasoning is that the taking of the oath as president marks a “fundamental transformation” from private citizen to public servant.

Justice Kennedy, widely considered a crucial swing vote, gave the government another hypothetical in which a candidate for mayor repeatedly made hateful statements, and took actions consistent with those statements once taking office. Justice Kennedy asks if those statements are irrelevant. The government again responds arguing that the actions taken by Trump are not a Muslim ban because the travel ban does not apply to the majority of the Muslim world and it was based on neutral criteria.

Justice Breyer shifted the questioning to the case-by-case waiver process and expressed skepticism that the number of individuals that have received waivers is enough to overcome the “real problem” of not having a good waiver process in place.

Neal Katyal argued next on behalf of Hawaii and began by saying that Congress has decided to reject nationality based bans before, opting to use a “carrot and stick” approach to reward countries that comply with requirements by fast-tracking entry. Katyal argued that in fact, the government has only identified a single problem, which is not individualized vetting but rather certain countries not cooperating.

Justice Alito questioned Katyal on the president’s authority under the current federal immigration law to exclude any alien or class of aliens whose presence would be deemed detrimental to the United States. Alito also asked if this Proclamation actually does anything to establish a new perpetual immigration policy for the United States. Katyal responded that this Proclamation is a perpetual, indefinite, open-ended ban with no sunset provision.

Justice Kennedy interjected saying that re-examination by the administration every 180 days in the form of a report submitted to the White House indicates a reassessment, adding “you want the President to say ‘I’m convinced in 6 months we are going to have a safe country?’” Justice Kennedy also quotes statutory language indicating he believes the president has broad latitude and authority in immigration policy.

Testing the outer limits of Katyal’s Establishment Clause theory, Justice Roberts posed another hypothetical: if the president’s advisors recommended an airstrike on Syria, would that violate the Establishment Clause because Syria is a Muslim-majority country and, therefore, anti-Muslim discrimination? Katyal pushed back arguing that this Proclamation was not introduced in the context of a pressing national security emergency like the hypothetical. In addition, Katyal stressed that the Establishment Clause is not at the heart of Hawaii’s position, but rather the flouting of Congressional authority in the context of immigration law. Arguing this point, Katyal said that if there are no limits to the president’s ability to prohibit the entry of any class of aliens, he could potentially ban software engineers from entering so as to protect the technology sector. Katyal argued that generally, the president can supplement congressional policy, but cannot completely supplant it.

Chief Justice Roberts also returned to the political rhetoric of the president from the campaign, promising a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Katyal argued that if President Trump had repudiated his campaign remarks, the Establishment Clause arguments would not exist, but the president has not repudiated; he has doubled down by complaining about his administration drafting a “watered down, politically correct version” to cure legal deficiencies, and retweeted anti-Muslim videos with captions like “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” and “Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!’

Justice Alito questioned how a reasonable observer could conclude that this was a Muslim Ban when only 8% of the world’s Muslims are impacted. Katyal rebuts by arguing that the point of focus should not be the 8% of the world’s Muslims, but the fact that 98% of the people affected are Muslim, or what he referred to as “religious gerrymandering.”

It becomes clear towards the end of the hearing that the Supreme Court’s decision may turn on whether it believes that the exceptions to the travel ban are substantive exceptions allowing individuals admission into the U.S., or whether they are merely “window dressing” for a broader categorical ban much different than those imposed by Presidents Carter and Reagan. Along these lines, Katyal directed the court’s attention to the case of a 10-year-old Yemeni girl with cerebral palsy who was denied medical entry into the United States. Justice Sotomayor questioned Mr. Francisco about the girl to which he responded that he was was not familiar with the case

Interestingly, the government revealed that to date, 430 exceptions (or case-by-case waivers) have been granted, though he stopped short of saying how many have been requested or rejected. Mr. Francisco also revealed that consular officers automatically check visa applications to see if they qualify for an exception/waiver. This is in direct contrast to what NIAC has heard from visa applicants who have received form letters and categorical denials of visas without being considered for waivers.

The Supreme Court will likely issue its decision by the end of June. In any event, other components of the broader Muslim Ban policy will remain no matter what the court decides. NIAC will continue to fight back against ‘extreme vetting’ and the sham waiver process in court, and on the Hill. Congress must immediately put an end to its shameful side-stepping and finally fulfill its duty to fully repeal this hateful and bigoted ban.

NIAC Concerned over Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Push for War

WASHINGTON, DC – Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement regarding the official visit of Prince Mohammad bin Salman:

“The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s official state visit to Washington DC tomorrow has one purpose above all and that is to fulfill what former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates warned about in 2010: The Saudis “want to fight the Iranians to the last American.” But while the Saudi effort to drag the US into war with Iran was blocked by previous administrations, Riyadh now appears to be pushing an open door.
 
“The tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are destabilizing the Middle East and necessitate strong diplomatic efforts to defuse the conflict before it escalates into a wider war. But the Saudi Crown Prince has rejected all offers of mediation, including from the Germans and the Chinese. 
 
“Serious diplomacy can reduce tensions and begin a process of positive confidence-building measures between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The alternative apparently favored by the Saudi Crown Prince is for the United States to send American service men and women into a potential war aimed at returning the region’s balance of power to the Saudi’s favor. That may be an attractive proposition to the rulers of Riyadh. But it does not lie in the national interest of the United States of America to rent its military to Saudi princes – regardless of what business opportunities they may be offering Donald Trump and Jared Kushner in return.”

 

Don’t Let Trump Turn Iran into North Korea


Thirteen months into Trump’s presidency
, the Iran nuclear deal is alive but wounded. Ironically, while many in the U.S. argued that Iran could not be trusted to abide by its terms, it is the U.S. under Trump that has violated the agreement on multiple occasions. Ominously, Iran has warned that if the status quo does not change, it could withdraw from the accord. Unless the administration changes course and halts its diplomatic sabotage, the JCPOA risks the same fate as another landmark nonproliferation agreement, the Agreed Framework with North Korea, to the profound detriment of U.S. security and the nonproliferation regime.

Read the full article on Defense One…

 

Think Again: Iran’s Missile Program

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In spite of Iran’s verified implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and subjected it to far-reaching inspections, Iran’s periodic testing of ballistic missiles has provoked substantial angst in Washington. Under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the resolution endorsing the JCPOA, Iran is “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” including tests for a period that will last up to eight years. While that language does not impose a binding legal obligation on Iran, both the U.S. and other parties have criticized Iran’s missile testing as “inconsistent” with UNSC Resolution 2231, though not a formal violation.

Since President Trump entered office, his administration has rolled out eight rounds of new sanctions designations and signed new sanctions legislation into law targeting Iran’s missile program. Moreover, the President in January threatened to terminate the JCPOA unless Congress passes legislation stating “that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.”

Despite this flurry of activity, there have been subtle shifts in Iran’s missile program that could reduce the program’s threat. In particular, Iran’s articulation of a range limit to its missiles and a shift toward short-range solid fueled missiles signals an interest in conventional, regional deterrence, not long-range nuclear missiles.

Iran is Focusing on Short-Range Missiles Aimed at Conventional Deterrence

The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, asserted that Iran’s missile program is limited to a 2,000 kilometer radius around Iran under a policy endorsed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Similar statements have been issued in the past, though Jafari’s statement appears to be a firming up of prior policy and a signal to the U.S. and others regarding the relative limits of Iran’s missile ambitions.

Moreover, Iran’s testing since the conclusion of the JCPOA appears consistent with this limit. According to an analysis from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Nuclear Threat Initiative, Iran has shifted from seeking longer range systems toward short-range missiles primarily suited for conventional deterrence. According to the study:

“the JCPOA has helped redirect Iran’s priorities for its missile program away from developing an ICBM (whose only purpose would be as a nuclear delivery system), to developing solid-fueled versions of its short-range missiles. While such missiles could also be nuclear-capable, they do not extend Iran’s range or payload capabilities meaningfully, and appear intended to serve a conventional purpose.”

While a 2,000 kilometer range limit would include Israel and Saudi Arabia, in addition to numerous U.S. bases in the region, Iran’s focus on conventional solid-fueled missiles suggests they are indeed aimed at regional deterrence – as opposed to long-range missile development that could threaten Europe or the U.S. mainland. Such a shift also meshes with Iran’s signing of the JCPOA, which ensures Iran’s missile program cannot be fitted with nuclear warheads. This is a positive that could be built upon through deft diplomacy, or undermined via diplomatic sabotage.

Pressure Is Unlikely to Change, and May Even Reinforce, Iran’s Missile Calculus

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats stated in the annual Worldwide Threats Report this week that Iran “has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.” Yet, Iran’s competitors are not without missile inventories that match or exceed Iran’s capabilities. Saudi Arabia reportedly maintains dozens of missiles capable of striking Iran, with a maximum range of 2,650 kilometers. Israel is believed to possess both a sizable nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles capable of traveling up to 6,500 kilometers. Moreover, Iran lacks a modern air force due to a continuing arms embargo and is outspent militarily by Saudi Arabia at a 5:1 rate.

While Iran may prove willing to negotiate over the range of its missiles or confidence building measures with other states if the JCPOA is adhered to, Iran views its missile program as a regional deterrent that is central to its national defense doctrine. Sanctions have not altered that calculus and major arms buildups among Iran’s neighbors have likely strengthened it.

Much of this doctrine stems from Iran’s experience in the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran was almost completely isolated within the region and globally as the world turned a blind eye and even aided Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on Iran. Moreover, while Hussein was able to target missiles at Iranian cities from within Iraq, Iran had no similar deterrence or response capability. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has stated that Iran needs its missile program “to prevent another Saddam Hussein around the corner attacking us with chemical weapons because the international community has failed miserably in protecting the Iranian people.” The development of a conventional deterrent and response capability is one that has broad support within Iran across political divides. Unless the U.S. and international community engages on the fundamental issues at the heart of Iran’s missile calculus, no amount of sanctions or regional arms sales will succeed in altering it.

Iran’s Missile Testing Has Remained Sporadic

There were only a handful of confirmed reports of Iranian missile launches in 2017. These include:

  • Iran test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile January 29;
  • Iran test-fired a pair of short-range ballistic missiles in early March;
  • Iran launched eight missiles at ISIS (a U.S. enemy) on June 18 in response to a terror attack in Tehran;

While President Trump took to Twitter to allege another Iranian missile launch September 23, this report was actually based on old video of the January test. Further, while Iran test-fired a Simorgh satellite rocket July 27 amid passage of Congressional sanctions targeting Iran’s missile program, that rocket is not designed to be capable of reentering the atmosphere and thus has limited military applications.

It is noteworthy that the July 27 launch appears to be the last undertaken by Iran – a testing pause of more than six months that has extended into 2018. In roughly the same period, the U.S. Navy has reported a significant lapse in dangerous run-ins with the IRGC in the Persian Gulf. While these trends should be monitored, it appears possible that Iran is attempting to avoid giving the U.S. a pretext to sabotage the JCPOA and turn Europe against Iran.

Iran launched roughly five missile tests per year from 2006 to 2012 before nuclear negotiations involving the U.S. gained traction in 2013, according to Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Iran largely abstained from missile tests while the negotiations that led to the JCPOA were underway. Since then, the frequency of Iran’s missile tests has been largely consistent with past practices, and – barring major changes – there remains little reason to expect Iran to dramatically ramp up or seek to field a missile capable of reaching beyond the region.

To put Iran’s missile testing in perspective, the CNS-NTI report notes that North Korea tested 14 missiles capable of traveling more than 3,000 kilometers between the signing of the JCPOA and August of 2017, a feat that has not been replicated by Iran.

Transfers to Yemen?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has taken the lead for the administration in alleging that Iran transferred missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, which were in turn launched against Saudi Arabia. Iran has vociferously denied the claim while indicating that Houthi missile stocks were left over from prior Yemeni governments. While Russia has dismissed the Trump administration’s allegations as inconclusive, a confidential UN report has indicated that Iran “failed to block ballistic missile supplies from being used by Houthi rebels.”

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen – with substantial military assistance from the U.S – has been heavily focused on rolling back Iran’s alleged influence there. Yet, at least at the outset of the conflict, ties between Iran and the Houthis were tenuous at best, with Houthi rebels ignoring Iran’s warnings against taking the capital Sanaa in 2014. If Iran-Houthi ties have now progressed to the point where Iranian support has enabled the Houthis to nearly strike key targets in Riyadh, it should be a clear signal to policymakers that U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia’s intervention is having the opposite of its intended effect and is endangering Saudi and regional security.

What is needed is what the Trump administration has avoided since it came into office: serious, multilateral diplomacy aimed at ending the conflict in Yemen and ameliorating all the actors’ security concerns. Absent this, the negative trend line of the war in Yemen is likely to continue, with disastrous results for the Yemeni people and regional security.

Trump is Escalating Missile Sanctions without a Serious Diplomatic Plan

Thus far, the Trump administration has continued to designate entities and individuals with ties to Iran’s missile program, while also signing new legislation into law targeting the program. Calls to subject Iran’s program to “severe sanctions” would be largely redundant, as the program is already heavily sanctioned. The administration and Congress’ actions since January 2018 include:

  • February 2, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on 25 individuals and entities following Iran’s January launch;
  • May 17, 2017 – The Treasury Department sanctions seven individuals and entities, including a Chinese network, for supporting Iran’s missile program;
  • July 18, 2017 – The Department of State designates two entities for supporting Iran’s missile program while the Treasury Department designates sixteen entities and individuals for supporting the IRGC;
  • July 28, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on six Iranian entities supporting Iran’s missile program in response to its launch of the Simorgh space rocket;
  • August 2, 2017 – The administration signs the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) into law, which mandates the imposition of additional sanctions in response to Iran’s missile program;
  • August 14, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on eleven entities and individuals, including one entity for supporting Iran’s missile program;
  • October 13, 2017 – The Treasury Department designates the IRGC as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), while also designating four entities including for ties to Iran’s missile program;
  • October 25, 2017 – The House of Representatives passes H.R. 1698, the Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act.
  • January 4, 2017 – The Treasury Department sanctioned “five Iran-based entities subordinate to a key element of Iran’s ballistic missile program.”
  • January 12, 2017 – In addition to sanctioning Iranian persons and entities under human rights sanctions, the Treasury Department designated persons and an entity for ties to entities sanctioned for supporting Iran’s missile program.  

In the absence of serious, direct diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Iran, there is little possibility of changing Iran’s security calculus and no possibility of trading in sanctions for concessions on Iran’s missile activity or other concerning behavior – ensuring that the status quo remains the same or worsens, but never sustainably improves.

Moreover, while it is fair to be concerned about the potential uses of Iran’s missile program or other Iranian activity that runs counter to U.S. interests, it is important to ensure that economic pressure is calibrated and proportional. Continuing to ramp up sanctions designations and legislation at such a pace risks undermining sanctions relief obligated under the JCPOA and could harden domestic political pressure within Iran to begin hedging on JCPOA-compliance and take a more aggressive stance towards the U.S. across the region.

Instead of replacing nuclear escalation with missile escalation, the Trump administration and Congress should protect the gains of the nuclear accord and seek to build on them through serious diplomatic engagement. Failure to do so will risk the unraveling of the nuclear accord and the U.S. once again facing the threats of a nuclear-armed Iran or war.

Poll of Iranians Punctuates Points Made in Protests

 

Conducted after weeks of sweeping protests across the country, the latest national poll of Iranians by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and IranPoll underscores growing Iranian discontent with the economy, Tehran’s mismanagement and corruption, disillusionment with the JCPOA and the effectiveness of international diplomacy, and increasing disapproval of the policies of the Trump White House.

When asked their opinion regarding “how good or bad our country’s [Iran’s] economic situation” was, 68.9% of Iranians believed the economic situation in Iran was somewhat or very bad, with 40.7% of all Iranians responding the state of the economy was “very bad.” This overwhelming negativity comes as little surprise to most pollsters, given unemployment rates among Iranian youth as high as 40% and the depreciation of the Rial by 25% in the past 6 months. Dr. Ebrahim Mohseni, a research scholar at CISSM, commented on the discontent among many young Iranians at a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council, stating “[I]f the educated segment of the population feels they are not being utilized or are unemployed, then that becomes a severe source of discontent; both for the people who have attained the education and the people who have paid for it.”

When asked what has had the greatest negative effect on the economy, 63.3% of Iranians believed that domestic economic mismanagement and corruption,were the most responsible for Iran’s current economic issues, while only 32.1% of the population believed foreign sanctions and pressures were the most culpable.

This frustration and discontent with domestic economic policy manifested itself in the protests this January. When polled on the issue of price inflation for food products, 81.3% of Iranians strongly agreed the government should do more to prevent this issue. Likewise, 85.2% of Iranians strongly agreed with the statement that “the government should do more to fight financial and bureaucratic corruption in Iran.”

The poll also demonstrated growing disappointment with perceived lack of economic benefits from the JCPOA, and strong sentiments that diplomacy has been ineffective in achieving the country’s interests.  When surveyed on the effect of the JCPOA on people’s living conditions, 74.8% of Iranians responded that their living conditions have not improved. Regarding their opinion of the success of the JCPOA, 67.4% of Iranians supported the statement that the “JCPOA experience shows that it is not worthwhile for Iran to make concessions, because Iran cannot have confidence that if it makes a concession world powers will honor their side of the agreement.”

The poll found growing disapproval of the Trump Administration’s policies toward Iran. 60% of Iranians believe the United States has not complied with all of its promised sanctions removals, and 89% percent lack confidence that the United States will live up to its JCPOA obligations. When asked to rate President Trump’s Iran policies on a scale of 0-10 (0 being completely hostile and 10 being completely friendly), 69% of Iranians found his policies to be completely hostile, and when asked to indicate to what degree [they] held a favorable or unfavorable view of the United States government, 67% had a very unfavorable opinion.  

Also speaking at the Atlantic Council presentation on the survey was Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder and publisher of the online platform Bourse & Bazaar which supports Iranian “business diplomacy.” He expressed his concerns that the botched execution of sanctions relief under the nuclear deal –  by the current U.S. administration in particular – devalued the very idea of diplomacy to the Iranian people. “Sanctions, at least in the Iranian context, have been one of the most self-defeating diplomatic tools imaginable; because in their application and flawed removal, they have actually harmed the idea and the prospect of diplomacy moving forward,” stated Batmanghelidj.

When analyzing these findings, it is also vital to bear in mind potential constraints associated with conducting national polls in an authoritarian country. Dr. Mohseni acknowledged the need to phrase polling questions in a manner that those surveyed would not feel compelled to self-censor, particularly with phone interviews.

NIAC Condemns Trump’s Divisive Address

 

 

 

 
Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, released the following statement in response to tonight’s State of the Union address:

“President Trump’s first year in office was spent dividing our union and undermining American credibility abroad. Far from taking actions to restrain a President woefully unfit for the job and dedicated to discriminatory and un-American policies like the Muslim ban, Congress has aided and abetted Trump. The American people, including the Iranian-American community, will remember those legislators who have defended Trump’s disgraceful policies and then stood and applauded him tonight. They will also remember those who criticized Trump’s actions on the sidelines but refused to challenge him when it really counted.

“Trump’s words of praise for the Iranian people were once again utterly hollow. Only a President without any conscience could praise the very people he is banning. Trump should drop the ban, but if he is too attached to his bigotry to do so, he should at least stop pretending to be a friend of the Iranian people.

“Trump once again reminded Congress that the buck stops with them on the Iran nuclear deal and broader areas of concern with Iran. But Congress cannot unilaterally alter the terms of a multilateral agreement without violating its terms. Moreover, there is already a blueprint of success on issues of concern with Iran: serious, multilateral negotiations aimed at mutual compromise. Unfortunately, Trump has shown outright disdain for this successful approach, with the administration having zero communication with Iran outside of what is required by the nuclear accord.

“Trump, of course, neglected to mention that Iran is complying with the nuclear accord and that international inspectors in Iran are implementing the most robust verification regime in the world thanks to the nuclear deal. Congress should continue to abstain from any action that would push the U.S. into violation of the accord, while also undertaking steps to pressure the administration to recommit to fully abide by all the terms of the deal. There is no excuse for Members of Congress to be an accomplice to Trump’s undermining of an accord that is forestalling an Iranian nuclear weapon and war with Iran over its nuclear program – otherwise, they will share the blame for the accord’s collapse.”

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Media Availability: Experts Available to Discuss Iran Protests, Trump’s Iran Nuclear Deal Decision

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Trita Parsi, President, 202.386.2303, tparsi@niacouncil.org
Reza Marashi, Research Director, 206.383.9173, rmarashi@niacouncil.org
Jamal Abdi, Vice President of Policy, 206.369.2069, jabdi@niacouncil.org

MEDIA AVAILABILITY: Experts Available to Discuss Trump’s Iran Nuclear Deal Decision

Experts from the National Iranian American Council are available to discuss the protests in Iran and President Trump’s upcoming decision on whether or not to certify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. As Iran is gripped by the largest protests since the 2009 Green Movement, decisions made by President Trump could undermine the Iranian people’s demands for economic and social justice and spark a major security crisis in the Middle East.

Should Trump ignore the advice of his national security advisers and fail to extend sanctions waivers later this week, despite Iran’s continued compliance with the nuclear deal, he will put the U.S. into violation of the agreement’s terms and increase the risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon and war with Iran. Moreover, the Iranian government would seize upon U.S. violations to shift attention from its own failures to the bad faith of the United States.

The following experts at the National Iranian American Council are available to provide clear and nuanced analysis of the Iran protests, politics in Iran and President Trump’s upcoming decisions on the nuclear deal:

Trita Parsi: Trita is the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on civil rights and US-Iranian relations. Trita’s book, “Losing an Enemy” is considered the definitive book on Obama’s historic nuclear deal with Iran which focuses on Obama’s deeply considered strategy toward Iran’s nuclear program and reveals how the historic agreement of 2015 broke the persistent stalemate in negotiations that had blocked earlier effort.

Parsi’s articles have been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, Jane’s Intelligence Review, The Nation, The American Conservative, The Jerusalem Post, The Forward, and others. He is a frequent guest on CNN, PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer,NPR, the BBC, and Al Jazeera. Follow Trita on Twitter: @tparsi

Recent analysis:

Watch Trita debate the Iran Protests with Bill Kristol on MSNBC: https://www.niacouncil.org/msnbc-interview-trita-parsi/

Watch Trita on MSNBC discussing Trump in Saudi Arabia: https://www.facebook.com/NIACouncil/videos/10155485192243938/

– America’s Relationship With Europe: Collateral Damage if Trump Kills the Iran Deal. The American Conservative

– Will Trump kill the Iran nuclear deal this week? China better watch out, South China Morning Post

There’s Something Different about these Iran Protests, CNN

These Are the Real Causes of the Iran Protests, The Nation

The Coming Crisis With Iran, New York Times

Reza Marashi: Reza joined NIAC in 2010 as the organization’s first Research Director. He came to NIAC after four years in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, where he helped analyze the 2009 Green Movement for the U.S. government. Prior to his tenure at the State Department, he was an analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) covering China-Middle East issues, and a Tehran-based private strategic consultant on Iranian political and economic risk. Marashi is frequently consulted by Western governments on Iran-related matters.

Reza’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He has been a guest contributor to CNN, NPR, BBC, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times, among other broadcast outlets.

Recent analysis:

Watch Reza Marashi on CNN discussing the Iran protests here: http://edition.cnn.com/videos/tv/2017/12/30/exp-iranians-take-part-in-biggest-protests-since-1999.cnn

Watch Reza Marashi give his take on the Iran Nuclear Deal: https://www.facebook.com/NIACouncil/videos/10154909407473938/

– How Trump Could Use the Iran Protests to Kill the Nuke Deal, The Nation

Iran Protests: Civil Rights Movement Or Revolution?, Huffington Post

Trump and Israel Must Not Conflate North Korea Nuclear Threat With Iran, Haaretz

Jamal Abdi: Jamal is the Policy Director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the Executive Director of NIAC Action. He leads NIAC’s advocacy and education on civil rights and immigration issues, as well as diplomacy with Iran. He formerly served as Policy Advisor on foreign affairs, immigration, and defense issues in the U.S. Congress. Abdi has written for The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy, and blogs at The Huffington Post.  He is a frequent guest contributor in print, radio, and television, including appearances on Al Jazeera, NPR, and BBC News. Follow Jamal on Twitter: @jabdi

Recent Analysis:

Watch Jamal Abdi discuss the Iran nuclear deal on Al Jazeera: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=889EPgBn5vk&feature=youtu.be

Trump Turns Terror Into Political Opportunity That Threatens Iranian Americans, The Iranian

Why Give Trump The Keys To War With Iran?, The Huffington Post

NIAC Applauds 9th Circuit for Ruling Against Muslim Ban (Again)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Shayan Modarres
Email: smodarres@niacouncil.org
Phone: (407) 408-0494

Washington, D.C. – Shayan Modarres, legal counsel for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), issued the following statement following the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the lower court ruling blocking President Trump’s third Muslim ban:

“We are reassured by the Ninth Circuit’s ruling today upholding Judge Watson’s decision to block President Trump’s third attempt at banning Muslims. Today marks another victory for democracy and fundamental American principles. The U.S. Constitution and the President’s attempts to achieve a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States simply cannot coexist.

“The Ninth Circuit has now been charged with upholding and defending our Constitution against this unconstitutional Muslim ban on two separate occasions. Both times they have answered the call by rejecting this administration’s attempts at banning Muslims.

“On the other hand, in the face of protests erupting in airports across the country, families being torn apart, weddings being postponed or canceled, and individuals being prevented from receiving much needed medical treatment, Congress has failed to act, and consequently, has allowed this unconstitutional expedition to ban Muslims to continue since January 27.

“We celebrate today’s victory which brings affected families and impacted communities one step closer to reunification. But we remain cognizant of the fight ahead. Congress must immediately act to defund this unconstitutional Muslim ban that tears families apart and makes America much less safe.

“In the same vein, we also call on Congress to immediately pass a clean DREAM Act and to terminate all other discriminatory Trump immigration policies. The promise of America does not belong to any one group. For this great American experiment to last, we must all feel welcomed and safe. The Congressional carelessness and neglect that has allowed our democracy to erode must end.”

NIAC Frustrated with Muslim Ban Being Allowed Back into Effect

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Shayan Modarres
Email: smodarres@niacouncil.org
Phone: (407) 408-0494

Washington, D.C. – The National Iranian American Council (“NIAC”) issued the following statement on the heels of a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States moments ago to lift injunctions in the Fourth and Ninth Circuits, allowing the Trump administration to implement the embattled third version of the president’s Muslim ban pending appeals:

“We are deeply frustrated with the Supreme Court decision today allowing the third version of the Muslim ban to go back into effect. While we understand this is not a decision on the merits, every month since the inception of the Muslim ban in January, members of the Iranian-American community and other affected communities have remained in legal limbo and have been forced to ride an exhausting emotional roller coaster that has kept families apart. There have been brief windows of opportunity for the affected communities to apply for visas on behalf of their spouses, fiancés, grandmothers and grandfathers and other close family to join them in the United States, only to have that window shut just as quickly.

“The unintended consequences of varying court decisions may unfortunately be shared with the original intent of the Muslim ban: to discourage Muslims and Iranian Americans from traveling to the United States. Iranians, who have been told to quickly apply for visas and pay related fees while the Muslim ban was enjoined by the Fourth and Ninth Circuits, now have to relive the painful reality that they are unwanted in America – that they are viewed as inherently dangerous and, potentially in the future, would be viewed as second class citizens. NIAC cannot in good conscience continue to advise members of our community that their family members should continue paying visa fees and submitting applications for visas while the risk of being banned still exists.

“Our recommendation to Iranian-Americans whose family members might be seeking visas is to not apply for visas until a Supreme Court decision is made on the merits. Be advised, even if individuals are in possession of a valid visa that is not an M, F, or J visa, they may still be blocked from entering the United States.

“Iranians should be aware that they may not be allowed to enter the U.S. as a result of this decision, even if they travel on a valid U.S. visa.

“Days from now, oral arguments will be heard in the respective appellate courts. We remain optimistic that the judges in the Fourth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal will agree that the third version of the Muslim ban suffers from the same unconstitutional taint as the president’s first two attempts.”

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Iran Sanctions Slow Humanitarian Response to Earthquake Victims

The deadliest earthquake of 2017 struck Sunday in Iran, killing over 500 people, injuring almost 8,000 more and leaving roughly 70,000 people homeless. Worse still, the Iranian government’s relief efforts have been slow, heightening the people’s need for additional relief. Fortunately, in 2013 the Treasury Department issued a general license enabling Americans to contribute to relief efforts following natural disasters in Iran in many circumstances. However, certain sanctions remain, creating doubt among many over how best to respond and slowing organic social media campaigns that have become increasingly important in recent years. This minefield of roadblocks was illustrated by a recent Facebook fundraiser posted by Tohid Najafi, an Iranian American whose generous fundraiser managed to raise over $200,000 for earthquake victims in less than three days. Najafi originally intended to give the funds he had raised directly to Iranian relief organizations operating at the epicenter of the earthquake’s worst impact, a prospect some of his donors found attractive. However, Najafi later learned that it would take months to get a license from the Treasury Department to transfer the funds, and then turned to an organization with licensing – Moms Against Poverty – to distribute the funds. After reviewing the case, Facebook ultimately determined that all donations had to be refunded to the donors. However, they sent a message to the donors informing them that refunded payments would be matched by Facebook in a $200,000 donation to Moms Against Poverty. Fortunately, Facebook was generous enough to send its own donation to Moms Against Poverty. However, the problem remains: U.S. sanctions are posing unnecessary hurdles that slow humanitarian relief efforts.

The Treasury Department’s rules around donating goods or money to Iran for relief efforts still present several onerous obstacles. Americans can donate to U.S.-based NGOs assisting in relief efforts – including those listed in our FAQ here. However, they cannot donate money directly to an Iranian organization engaged in relief work, nor a foreign-based nonprofit, absent a license from the Treasury Department. Individuals are also allowed to send remittances to help family or friends, yet the payments, which must be processed by a third party financial institution, often hit snags when banking institutions that are overly wary of violating sanctions back out.

It appears that the process has been improved from 2012, when relief organizations responding to another earthquake had to resort to filling suitcases with cash because no banks were willing to transfer funds to Iran in spite of exemptions. However, many banks are still hesitant to engage in any such transactions, and given the lack of a direct banking relationship between the U.S. and Iran, many banks have to resort to finding a third party bank to transfer their funds.

Fortunately, this issue is receiving some attention from Congress. Senator Bernie Sanders, along with 4 other senators, sent a letter to the White House urging Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to “make it easier for U.S. citizens to contribute to nongovernment organizations not based in the United States that are currently providing relief aid to earthquake victims in Iran.” Additionally, NIAC is assisting in planning local fundraisers for earthquake victims, and will continue to encourage the Treasury Department and State Department to take additional steps to ensure that sanctions do not slow down relief efforts. It remains unclear whether the Trump administration will heed such calls and follow in the footsteps of past administrations that carved out broader sanctions exemptions in response to natural disasters in Iran. Ultimately, these difficulties caused by sanctions are unlikely to be fully relieved until US financial sanctions on Iran are fully lifted.