November 22, 2017

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. 

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