February 25, 2014

Bank of Hawaii Closes Bank Accounts for Iranians Living in U.S.

Washington DC – In the latest case of broad sanctions impacting ordinary Iranians, Iranian nationals in the United States were recently contacted by Bank of Hawaii and informed that their accounts would be terminated due to their Iranian citizenship.

The National Iranian American Council has called on the bank to reverse its decision. In a letter addressed to the Bank’s President, NIAC has warned that the policy likely constitutes discrimination on the basis of national origin. If the policy is not reversed, further action may be required to ensure the bank cannot discriminate against Iranians.

The bank initially notified Iranian nationals that their accounts would be terminated last December. The notifications claimed that the economic sanctions administered by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control justified the planned closures because the bank could not prevent costumers who are Iranian citizens from operating their accounts from Iran. While sanctions prevent customers from accessing or otherwise maintaining a U.S. bank account while inside of Iran, the accounts in question are operated by persons living in the United States jurisdiction who happen to have Iranian citizenship. There is no law or regulation that justifies terminating such accounts.

NIAC noted in its letter that the policy could lead to cancellations of bank accounts held by Iranian Americans in addition to those of Iranians studying or working in the United States. Under Iran’s citizenship laws, all persons born in Iran automatically carry Iranian citizenship, as do individuals born outside of Iran whose father is an Iranian national—including many Iranian Americans.

This is not the first time ordinary Iranians have faced banking troubles while in the U.S. Under existing sanctions legislation, it is U.S. policy to prevent Iranians from studying in energy-related fields in the U.S., and students in many math, science, and education fields are only allowed a single-entry visa. Many students have reported difficulty in paying for tuition or cost of living due to difficulties in accessing funds held originally in Iran or transferring money form back home.

In 2012, TCF bank informed at least twenty-two Iranian students at the University of Minnesota that their university-linked bank accounts would be closed. In that case no explanation was provided, but the students had one thing in common: they were all Iranian. NIAC worked closely with the students and attorney Samira Afzali to call on TCF to reverse its decision. A complaint was subsequently filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights by Afzali on behalf of several of the students. This past January, the department agreed to begin an investigation into TCF Bank’s activity for potential discrimination.

As governments have tightened their sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program over the years, U.S. companies and financial institutions have too often erred on the side of discrimination, applying stricter policies toward Iranians than is required by law. However, in doing so they risk violating anti-discrimination laws and constitutional protections that protect persons under U.S. jurisdiction.


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