Washington, DC – Since Iran’s disputed presidential election in June, lawmakers in the United States have searched for ways to support the Iranian people’s movement for basic rights and freedoms. Yet, with the tattered history of US involvement in internal Iranian politics, they must tread lightly or else risk buttressing the Iranian government’s claim that its opponents are “agents of foreign powers.”
Taking those concerns into consideration, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) introduced H.R. 4303, the Stand with the Iranian People Act (SWIPA), to support the Iranian people’s democratic movement by ensuring that America’s Iran policy imposes pressure on the Iranian government–not the innocent Iranian people. In order to do this, SWIPA imposes targeted sanctions on Iran’s human rights abusers, while simultaneously relaxing restrictions on US humanitarian assistance delivered directly to the Iranian people.
SWIPA declares that it should be the policy of the United States to:
Two decades of indiscriminate sanctions have imposed a heavy burden on Iran’s economy, isolating it from Western trading partners and increasing the cost of doing business. Throughout that time, however, the Iranian government has managed to remain relatively unscathed by shifting the cost of sanctioned goods onto average citizens. Thus, the actual burden of America’s sanctions strategy has been felt most by the Iranian people, not the government.
Take, for example, a popular soft drink like Coca-Cola. US sanctions make it difficult to export Coca-Cola products to Iran. This has spurred the Iranian government to develop generic brands of soft drinks–most well-known is a drink named Zam-Zam Cola–which act as a source of revenue for the IRGC front companies distributing them. On top of that, the IRGC also operates smuggling activities, which provide the name-brand products to Iranians at a sizeable mark-up. Thus, the state gets rich off of a “sanctions economy,” while the population is left to shoulder the burden.
This same scenario is being played out in industries across the entire Iranian economy, and has been developing for nearly two decades.
The sanctions proposed by SWIPA are intended to redirect economic pressure back onto government officials by imposing targeted sanctions that cannot be deflected to the population, such as freezing officials’ bank accounts, imposing travel restrictions, and prohibiting business cooperation with certain government entities.
Additionally, SWIPA would cut off US Government funding for companies that sell advanced censorship and surveillance technology to the Iranian government. European companies such as Nokia-Siemens Networks were reported this summer to have provided the Iranian government with tools allowing it to monitor and restrict citizens’ phone and Internet communications. Tehran utilized these capabilities extensively in the aftermath of the election as a way to suppress opposition activities and restrict the flow of information. SWIPA would prohibit the heads of US Government agencies from entering into any contracts with companies that provide this type of censorship or surveillance technology to the government of Iran.
Removing US Barriers to Cooperation
Beyond imposing new targeted sanctions on the Iranian government, SWIPA also seeks to relax restrictions that have blocked cooperation between the American people and private Iranian citizens.
SWIPA would authorize US non-profit organizations to establish and carry out operations in Iran “for the direct provision of humanitarian and people-to-people assistance,” including promoting nutrition, sanitation and health care, as well as supporting human rights, representative governance, and facilitating international exchanges.
Despite the cool relations between Washington and Tehran, the United States has provided much-needed aid to Iran during times of humanitarian crisis. In 2003, American citizens and relief organizations delivered humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Iran in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake in Bam. For the first time since 1979, American planes touched down in Iran loaded with medical personnel, structural engineers, and rescue specialists. Special task forces from Boston, Los Angeles and Virginia took advantage of a Bush administration decision to temporarily waive Iran sanctions and delivered civilian aid to those affected by the disaster.
After 180 days, however, the sanctions waiver expired and the relief services and activities being provided came to a halt.
Under current sanctions, American charities are prohibited from operating in Iran without a specific license from the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). In order to obtain a license, organizations must submit an application to OFAC where a team of analysts reviews the proposal and determines whether to authorize the activity. The time it takes OFAC to process each application has been steadily on the rise over recent years, and is now approaching an average of 75 business days. At times, the process has taken a year or more before a final decision is made on an application. With the licenses only good for 12 months, this has created a problem for many nonprofit organizations looking to provide services to needy Iranians; without a credible assurance that an application for renewal would likely be granted in time to continue operations, many organizations have decided it is simply not worth it to apply at all. Thus, an overly-burdensome bureaucratic process has actually stifled non-profit activities that have been endorsed by US administrations for years, leaving American citizens who wish to contribute aid to the Iranian people with nowhere to turn.
SWIPA is intended to drop the licensing requirement and allow American non-profits to provide humanitarian and people-to-people assistance directly to Iranians. The activities authorized in the bill would not apply to organizations that do business with any entity identified by the Treasury Department as being connected to Iran’s government or its energy, financial, or security sectors. The bill also requires an organization to notify the Secretary of the Treasury about its plans before it begins operating in Iran, giving the Secretary an opportunity to prohibit activities in Iran on a case-by-case basis.
Rep. Ellison and his staff told NIAC that one of the main goals behind H.R. 4303 is to ensure that US sanctions policies do not unintentionally contribute to the suffering of the Iranian people. In creating obstacles for American charities to deliver basic necessities to the Iranian people, US policies have unintentionally aided the Iranian government’s repression. SWIPA is designed to remove those barriers to increased cooperation, and to provide critical aid to the Iranian people who need it most.