June 10, 2011

As Sanctions Ratchet Up, Iranian Americans Bear Increasing Burdens

Sanctions ReportWith a new push for even more “crippling” Iran sanctions coming out of Congress, and renewed signs from the president that further sanctions may be in the offing, it is more important than ever for Americans, particularly Americans of Iranian descent, to evaluate the unintended impact these sanctions are having here in the U.S.

Yesterday, the civil rights organization Asian Law Caucus released its latest guide, The Impact of U.S. Sanctions Against Iran on You, which lays out some of the effects of sanctions on ordinary Iranian Americans and provides guidance for how to navigate the maze of new and existing restrictions.

Last year, when Iranian-American Mahmoud Reza Banki was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for facilitating remittances between families in the U.S. and Iran, shockwaves rippled through the Iranian-American community.

That’s because even under ramped up sanctions, Iranian Americans are still legally permitted to send family remittances to loved ones in Iran. However, because banking sanctions have closed off most of the legal channels for such transactions, many turn to workarounds that may seem innocuous, but are often illegal.

The ALC effort is important in ensuring that Iranian Americans understand their rights and don’t end up unintentionally violating the law. But even with this understanding, many Iranian Americans have been unable to avoid the chilling effect caused by the increasing breadth of sanctions.

Banks have frozen the accounts of Iranian Americans who simply checked their bank balance online from Iran. In at least one case, a bank closed an account when it determined its customer was a “resident” of Iran because she had been thrown in jail on frivolous espionage charges.

Website owners have found that certain web hosts refuse to allow Iranian IP addresses to access their sites. Iranian Americans who formerly worked and retired in Iran report that they are now unable to receive their pensions here in the U.S. due to banking restrictions. Charity and relief organizations have been shocked when, despite going through the long and arduous process of obtaining a U.S. license to work on humanitarian projects in Iran, they are suddenly and wrongly dropped by their financial institution. And researchers have been unable to conduct studies or obtain grants related to Iran because of concerns about sanctions.

None of these activities are illegal, but the broad, untargeted nature of Iran sanctions have convinced companies and banks that facilitating such activities is simply not worth the risk.

Even with these difficulties, many, if not most, Iranian Americans would be happy to make these sacrifices if doing so held the promise of helping improve the situation in Iran. But the results we have seen from broad sanctions have consistently been the opposite. Economic sanctions regarding Iran’s nuclear program have not stopped or even stemmed the human rights abuses in Iran. They have failed to change the Iranian government’s behavior for over three decades and have hurt, not helped, the Iranian people.

For instance, restrictions on aircraft parts and repairs have helped leave Iran’s civilian aircraft fleet in disrepair, resulting in at least fifteen Iranian plane crashes in the past decade.

We also now know that, in June 2009, as Iranians took to the streets to demand accountability from their government in the face of brutal repression, U.S. sanctions were preventing Iranians from accessing even the most basic communication software and hardware.

Fast forward two years and many of these sanctions remain in place, new ones have been ratcheted up, and even more may be on the way. Meanwhile, Tehran continues to put thirty years of experience in leveraging the sanctions to use by enriching government officials and further consolidating their share of Iran’s economy by controlling the sale of sanctioned products.

Hopefully, efforts like those of the ALC to educate the Iranian-American community can help ensure that innocent people do not unknowingly get swept into the wake of the broad sanctions or have their rights violated.

But going forward, we will need to continue to press policymakers to pay more attention to the unintended consequences of these sanctions.

With Congress considering oil embargo measures that will make Iran policy look even more like the policies carried out on Iraq — which failed to depose Saddam, resulted in humanitarian disaster, and ultimately ended in war — elected officials must hear this message.

It is critical that Americans, and especially Iranian Americans, take action to oppose sanctions that invite dangerous outcomes for the U.S. and the Iranian people, and fail to discriminate between Iran’s government, the Iranian people, and Iranian Americans.




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