February 26, 2016

Kerry to Congress on Visa Waivers: ISIS Fighters Don’t Come from Iran

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 2.31.44 PMWashington, DC – Secretary John Kerry did not mince words on Capitol Hill yesterday when challenged by Republicans over the Obama Administration’s implementation of a new visa law that was initially aimed at preventing ISIS fighters from coming to the U.S., but which was amended to include sweeping restrictions against dual nationals and travelers to Iran. 

“The principal threat that we are concerned about – of terror from Daesh (ISIS) – is not coming out of Iran,” Kerry told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It’s coming out of other places.”

The Obama Administration has faced blistering criticism from Republican lawmakers for utilizing waivers under the new Visa Waiver Program law in order to ensure that humanitarian, journalism, governmental, and business travel would not be grounds for disqualification from the program. Lawmakers have been particularly critical of the waivers to enable business travel to Iran, which are necessary to ensure the U.S. does not renege on sanctions relief promised under the nuclear deal. 

Republicans on the panel, who have unanimously opposed the nuclear agreement, questioned how the Administration could justify the use of these waivers, which can only be utilized if in the interest of national security or law enforcement. “We have an interest, obviously, in being able to guarantee that Iran over a period of time – or any other country – may be able to change, may be able to move to a different posture,” Kerry responded. “And our belief is, from a national security point of view, that if people are able to do legitimate business, that over a period of time that changes things. We look at what’s happening in Vietnam today, for instance, or we look at what’s happening in Burma, other countries – transformation takes place. And we believe that transformation is in the national security interests of our country, and some of it comes from entrepreneurial activity, being able to take place, where people begin to feel better about life, see that they’re not threatened, do better, travel see the world, and so forth.”

Kerry detailed that the administration’s use of a waiver on the visa restrictions adhered to the letter of the law and that they would be utilized on a case-by-case basis, instead of a blanket waiver, and questioned why some in Congress were so intent on blocking a “European businessperson, or an NGO that happens to be advocating human rights” from traveling to Iran. In response to further questioning on the waivers from Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Kerry responded that “our friends, our allies – French, German British, others are deeply concerned about the impact of this law inadvertent on their citizens.”

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) said that Secretary Kerry had “an affinity for Tehran” that was not shared by lawmakers. Kerry rejected the veiled swipe. “My job as the Secretary of State and as a diplomat,” Kerry said, “is to try to find solutions to problems that don’t involve – if possible and if we can achieve our goals – sending young people into conflict, going to war. War is the failure of diplomacy to solve a problem.”

On the implementation of the nuclear accord, Kerry disagreed with committee chairman Ed Royce’s (R-CA) assertion that the administration would be unable to snap back sanctions in the event of an Iranian violation unless Congress renews the expiring Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), legislation which authorizes certain sanctions that are being suspended under the nuclear deal. “We have all the snapback we need without the ISA,” Kerry said. He also cautioned against renewing the ISA at the moment given ongoing uncertainty with respect to implementation of the accord, asserting that there is plenty of time to pass the ISA later and that Congress could do so in ten minutes, if necessary. 

Kerry also highlighted the potential benefit of sanctions relief and that many U.S. sanctions remain in place. Businesses are going to “do what they are permitted to do under the agreement, which is do business in terms of Iran, and hopefully those links will ultimately result in transformation to some degree.” 

Despite Kerry’s strong backing of the legality of the administration’s waiver authority and hope that Iran’s reintegration under the nuclear deal can lead to positive changes within the country, the administration has not yet extended waivers to any dual nationals or to individuals who have traveled to Iran to visit family or for tourism or academic purposes. 

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