NIAC Letter Regarding Etsy’s U.S. Sanctions Compliance Policies and Discriminatory Treatment Towards Iranian Americans

Photo Credit: yasmeenabedi / Twitter

The National Iranian American Council has sent a letter to Etsy concerning its apparently discriminatory treatment of an American vendor selling “Persian dolls” on its website. These dolls appear to have been made in America with American materials by an American, and under no circumstances should have been flagged as a prohibited item. No sanctions apply to American-made items celebrating Persian cultural heritage or antiquity. Etsy’s knee-jerk or automated reaction that led to the prohibition of the dolls is deeply concerning and smacks of discrimination.

At this time, many Iranian Americans are concerned that rising geopolitical tensions are triggering a new wave of xenophobia against our community. NIAC urges Etsy to publicly detail the reasoning behind this discriminatory treatment, take action to verify that it will not continue it and issue an apology to the vendor. NIAC also stand ready to discuss with Etsy the sanctions on Iran and how the company can avoid similar discriminatory action in the future.

The text of the letter is below:

January 18, 2020

SENT VIA MAIL

Etsy Legal Compliance Office
55 Washington Street, Suite 512
Brooklyn, New York 11201

Re: Letter Regarding Etsy’s U.S. Sanctions Compliance Policies and Discriminatory Treatment Towards Iranian Americans

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am writing on behalf of the National Iranian American Council (“NIAC”), the largest grassroots organization in the United States representing the interests of Iranian Americans, regarding Etsy’s decision to remove from its online store products made by U.S. persons in the United States solely due to the inclusion of the word “Persian” in the title of the product. While we understand that–as a U.S. company–Etsy must comply with all U.S. sanctions laws, Etsy must not implement these commitments in such a manner as to discriminate against users of Iranian descent or to render prohibitive all cultural items of or relating to Iran. We are deeply troubled by this incident and are concerned that–based on Etsy’s apparent sanctions compliance policies and procedures–other users of Iranian descent are likely to face similar discriminatory treatment from Etsy in the future. 

Recently, it has come to our attention that Etsy removed handmade dolls for sale on its online store because the items were described as “Persian dolls.” According to Etsy’s notice, Etsy removed the product because “Persian dolls” constituted a “prohibited item” under the company’s policies. This product, as NIAC understands it, was made by a user of Iranian descent in the United States using solely goods sourced from the United States. No U.S. sanctions laws or regulations appear to have been triggered by Etsy’s hosting of this item for sale on its online store. Etsy’s apparent compliance program has prohibited items from its online store that would raise no compliance issues under U.S. sanctions laws.

U.S. companies must narrowly tailor their U.S. sanctions compliance policies and procedures to the requirements of U.S. laws to ensure that these policies and procedures do not discriminate against and further burden affected communities, including the Iranian-American community. Identifying “Persian dolls” as a “prohibited item” pursuant to its internal sanctions policies and procedures does not qualify as a sanctions program narrowly tailored to the requirements of U.S. law. Such sanctions over-compliance has understandably caused much frustration and anger in our community, and actions such as Etsy’s raise persistent fears that the Iranian American community is the subject of discriminatory treatment. 

We trust that Etsy will review this matter and seek to mitigate the harm caused to any affected parties. We would like to speak further with representatives of the company regarding how they can engage in remediation to revise their sanctions program to ensure that it is strictly tailored to the requirements of U.S law and does not cause any undue impacts on Iranian Americans or other affected communities moving forward. We thank you for your consideration and look forward to your response. 

Sincerely,

Jamal Abdi
President, National Iranian American Council

NIAC Statement on the Passage of Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran

In response to the passage of a resolution by the House Foreign Affairs Committee condemning the Iranian government for its human rights abuses, the National Iranian American (NIAC) released the following statement: 

“We are pleased that the resolution passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee condemning the Iranian government’s human rights violations includes a key recommendation calling for the expansion of General License D-1 so that U.S. sanctions do not inhibit the Iranian people’s access to the internet. This is long overdue and we hope that given support from Congress and civil society, including our own outreach, the Treasury Department will move swiftly to implement the recommendation. To truly stand with the Iranian people, we must credibly spotlight and condemn abuses by the Iranian government while also challenging ‘maximum pressure’ policies that have only hurt ordinary Iranians and undermined their ability to seek their rights.”

NIAC Commends Reps. Grijalva, Omar and Lee for Calling on Trump Administration to Protect Humanitarian Trade with Iran

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, December 17, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

WASHINGTON DC – Jamal Abdi, President of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), released the following statement regarding the letter from Reps. Raul Grijalva, Ilhan Omar and Barbara Lee calling for the Trump administration to protect humanitarian trade with Iran:

“After the Trump administration took two key steps in recent months to restrict humanitarian trade with Iran, this letter comes at a critical time. Even as the Iranian people contend with brutal repression from their own government, they are being simultaneously squeezed by crushing U.S. sanctions that have led to shortages of life-saving medicine. Reps. Grijalva, Omar and Lee and all the signers of the letter deserve tremendous credit for highlighting the devastating consequences of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign and urging steps to ensure that food and life-saving medicine are not blocked by U.S. sanctions. 

“You can’t support the Iranian people by banning them, and you can’t support them by depriving them of food and medicine. The Trump administration needs to halt its deflection on the humanitarian impact of its sanctions, which is well-documented, and work on a real solution. We urge the administration to halt its targeting of humanitarian trade and respond in good faith to the legislators’ inquiry.”

 

NIAC Petitions U.S. Treasury for General License Update to Support Iranians’ Access to Internet

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, November 20, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org 

Washington DC – As the Iranian government implements a near total shutdown of the internet in the midst of a crackdown against widespread protests, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) called on the U.S. Treasury Department to take necessary steps to ensure U.S. sanctions are not contributing to the Iranian government’s ability to disconnect Iranians. Iranian Americans have been unable to communicate with family members during the shutdown and the isolation of Iran due to certain sanctions has unfortunately contributed to the Iranian government’s ability to separate its population from the rest of the world. 

NIAC President Jamal Abdi issued the following statement further explaining the rule range request: 

“NIAC is petitioning the Treasury Department for a formal rule change request to expand General License D-1, which has not been updated in more than five years. Over the past several months, Apple, Amazon, Google and many other tech companies have begun blocking Iranians from accessing key software and services as a result of limitations and ambiguities in General License D-1 and escalating U.S. sanctions on Iran. 

“This has forced Iranian developers to rely on Iran’s state-operated internal Internet, which has aided the Iranian government in building this infrastructure and reduced the costs of cutting off outside connections. This also undermines Iranian developers’ ability to work with the global developer community and makes it far more difficult for ordinary Iranians to access and operate virtual private networks and other important communication tools that allow them to communicate freely in spite of government censorship.

“Unfortunately, while General License D-1 was a welcome step to reduce the consequences of sanctions on Internet communications when it was first implemented in 2014, it is in need of clarification and expansion. As indicated by tech companies blocking Iranians from accessing their services, the exemptions contained in General License D-1 have not kept up with the pace of technology or the increasingly complex sanctions regime.

“NIAC strongly supported General License D-1 and has advocated in support of measures to prevent censorship technology from being acquired by Iran’s government and to ensure Iranians have access to communication technology. The formal rule change request is included below, and we look forward to working for its timely adoption.”

NIAC Statement on Protests across Iran over Gas Price Hike

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Saturday, November 16, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org 

WASHINGTON DC – Yesterday, protests erupted across Iran as the government announced an unexpected increase in and rationing of gasoline. Reports suggest that authorities have violently cracked down on the protests. 

In response to these developments, NIAC Senior Research Analyst Sina Toossi issued the following statement:

“NIAC is closely tracking reports of protests in many Iranian cities after the government announced an increase in the price of gasoline. NIAC condemns the Iranian government’s use of force used to disperse protestors, as seen in videos showing the deployment of riot police and tear gas in parts of Iran, as well as efforts to stifle communication by limiting internet access. The Iranian people have an inalienable right to peacefully demonstrate and express their economic and political grievances. The Iranian government denies them this right at its own peril.

“Ordinary Iranians have borne immense economic hardship due to government mismanagement and U.S. sanctions. Importantly, the Iranian political system is not monolithic and there are signs that more hardline elements seek to capitalize on public grievances to advance their own narrow aims. Rather than empower the Iranian people, the Trump administration’s fixation on ‘maximum pressure’ has served to embolden such forces. 

“The international community must push the Iranian government to abide by its human rights obligations, allow the Iranian people to peaceful demonstrate and air their grievances, and hold repressive forces to account for abuses. The protests are also occurring in the broader context of protests across the world and in the Middle East, as a consequence of government mismanagement and objections to price hikes on everyday commodities that hurt ordinary people. Under no circumstances should any government stifle the will of its people, and Iran arguably has a greater chasm of mistrust than most.

“NIAC also reiterates its call on the U.S. to end its policy of collectively punishing sanctions, which serve to impoverish ordinary Iranians and undermine hopes for democratic change. Starving the Iranian population only creates a destructive situation that eliminates avenues for the vital diplomacy necessary to secure a brighter future for the Iranian people.”

NIAC Statement on Iran’s Fourth Reduction in Nuclear Deal Compliance

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, November 5, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | (202) 386-6325 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

NIAC President Jamal Abdi issued the following statement regarding Iran’s announcement that it will reduce compliance with its nuclear deal commitments for a fourth time after the U.S. violation of the deal in pursuit of maximum pressure:

“The announcement that Iran will soon feed gas into centrifuges at Fordow is unwelcome news to all those who have sought to resolve the nuclear standoff diplomatically. This is yet another completely predictable result of the failed ‘maximum pressure’ policy adopted by Donald Trump.

“International concerns regarding the Fordow facility stem from the fact that its construction was covert and, as it is deeply buried, would be less susceptible to military strikes against Iran. However, so long as the International Atomic Energy Agency continues to have access to the facility in order to verify Iranian activities, which appears to be the case, Iran’s move will be provocative but reversible and not a near-term proliferation risk. Iran continues to provide Trump with a way out of his self-inflicted crisis should he summon the wherewithal to bypass his hawkish advisors as well as his own ego and animus towards his predecessor to return to the nuclear agreement.

“This latest escalation underscores the urgency of returning to and restoring compliance with the nuclear deal in full – starting with the U.S. easing sanctions that it reimposed in violation of the accord a full year before Iran started reducing its own compliance with the deal. Failure to do so risks a more complete unraveling of the accord and a steady march toward military confrontation. Only by stepping away from maximum pressure can Donald Trump move off the path to war and reopen diplomatic channels that have been closed by his own strategy.”

Human Rights Watch Report on Impact of Sanctions on Iran

According to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), U.S. sanctions, reinstated after the United States pulled out of the landmark Iran nuclear deal, have had a detrimental impact on the situation of human rights in Iran. The findings of this report are corroborated by the findings the United Nations Special Rapporteur, which also recently noted the negative impact of sanctions. Both reports indicate how sanctions have exacerbated economic hardship for Iranians, which in turn impede their access to vital resources such as medicines and food.

The report clearly shows how such impediments go against the “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – ratified by Iran and signed by the United States – obliges states to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to ‘the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,’ as well as the right to an adequate “standard of living” that includes “adequate food.”

The HRW report notes that, despite stated exemptions for humanitarian goods by the United States, the nature of sanctions has prevented international banks from participating in any kind of financial transactions with Iran for fear of penalties due to secondary sanctions. The current sanctions system of the U.S. has thus made it nearly impossible for such humanitarian transactions to take place.

Contributing to this scenario is an atmosphere of hostile U.S. rhetoric, as the HRW report states, “US officials have indicated that the pain US sanctions are causing for ordinary Iranians is intentional, part of a strategy to compel Iranian citizens to demand their autocratic government to ‘change behavior’,” what HRW calls “a recipe for collective punishment that infringes on Iranians’ economic rights.” The aggressive language of some U.S. officials has created an environment of overcompliance, where companies and banks prefer not to risk U.S. punishment for facilitating even humanitarian transactions.

The HRW report discusses in detail the issue of medicine and medical supplies, a key human rights concern. While Iran manufactures 97% of its own medicines, critical life-saving medicines, especially for rare and complicated diseases are imported and now access to those medicines are affected by sanctions. In terms of medical supplies, 70% of supplies is reportedly imported, these imports are negatively impacted by sanctions and prevent the import of vital medical equipment such as MRI machines.

The full report from Human Rights Watch can be found here. While we continue to spotlight the issue of human rights in Iran and the reprehensible abuses of Iranian officials, we must also acknowledge abuses at the hands of foreign actors, especially when it is our government. It is incumbent upon us to call out these issues, particularly when we have the opportunity to make a real impact. As Americans, we can and must hold our government accountable when our policies violate human rights at home or abroad.

NIAC Statement on Increased U.S. Restrictions on Humanitarian Trade with Iran

NIAC President Jamal Abdi issued the following statement on the Treasury Department’s adding new burdens to humanitarian trade with Iran:

“The Trump administration has sounded the death knell for humanitarian trade with Iran. Through its action today, the administration has made clear that the Iranian people are in the cross-hairs of their ongoing economic war against Iran and that the deliberate targeting of food and medicine to the Iranian people is fair game. This is a shameful development—one that makes the United States the equivalent of human rights violators that similarly target humanitarian goods in order to achieve their political objectives. 

“By designating Iran a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Trump administration has severed what limited remaining ties Iran has to the global financial system. The consequences have long been clear. Foreign banks have warned the U.S. Treasury Department that Iran’s designation under Section 311 will force them to stop processing humanitarian-related transactions in the future. Yet, the Trump administration has accepted, if not deliberately encouraged, those consequences.  

“The Trump administration seeks to save public face for its devastating action by feigning the creation of a ‘humanitarian channel’ by which foreign banks can process transactions. But this humanitarian channel functions more like a sanctions wall, erecting stringent conditions on foreign bank participation in humanitarian trade with Iran. Let’s be clear: There is unlikely to be a single banker in the world that will accept these conditions and participate in the trade. The Trump administration is surely aware of this fact, and its humanitarian channel should be viewed as nothing more than farce. 

“The Trump administration has consistently undertaken action to choke off humanitarian trade with Iran, including by reimposing nuclear sanctions against Iran and designating financial entities vital to humanitarian trade – like Bank Parsian and the Central Bank of Iran – under terrorism authorities. Today’s announcement does nothing to alleviate the real challenges sanctions pose to humanitarian trade, and in fact add new burdens apparently intended to end the provision of life-saving medicine to Iran. Congress and the public need to step up to reverse this brazen and outrageous action.”

NIAC Statement on Trump’s Address at the UN General Assembly

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, September 24, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

Washington DC – Today, President Donald Trump delivered his third address to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) since taking the presidency. As tensions between the U.S. and Iran hit an all time high, Trump aggressively targeted Iran in his speech, calling the country one of the “greatest security threats” and insisting that sanctions on Iran would not be lifted, but only further “tightened.”

In response, NIAC President Jamal Abdi issued the following statement:

“President Trump doubled down on the insults and invectives against Iran that only raises the domestic political cost for Rouhani to engage with the U.S. By resorting to simplistic rhetoric that demonizes Iran and blames it for all regional ills, Trump risks dooming what may be his last best chance to pivot towards diplomacy and away from a pressure policy that has brought the Middle East to the brink. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine how any Iranian official will now be able to have a sit down with Trump and be able to survive the backlash back home. 

“Trump had been presented an opportunity to alter course on Iran, both by an innovative French proposal for sanctions relief and a recent overture from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for permanent nuclear inspections. He chose to not discuss any substantive diplomatic initiative or indicate any willingness to ease the reckless “maximum pressure” campaign. By vowing to instead “tighten sanctions,” Trump is entrenching himself on a collision course with Tehran that will inevitably expand the endless war that he claims to want to end. 

“The incoherence of President Trump’s Iran policy was also on full display. His welcome remarks that the U.S. does not seek “permanent enemies” were dovetailed with the blatant falsehood that Iran has a “fanatical quest” for nuclear weapons. Notably, Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coates last acknowledged concluded last year that Iran was not “undertaking the key activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.” Such distortions by the President echo the Bush administration’s stream of misinformation that led to the disastrous Iraq War that Trump claimed to oppose but risks repeating.”

NIAC Statement on Trump Administration’s Latest Sanctions on Iran

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Friday, September 20, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

In response to the Trump administration’s announcement of new sanctions on Iran for its alleged role in attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Ryan Costello, Policy Director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), released the following statement:

“President Trump’s recent sanctions designations appear duplicative at first glance, but in fact will likely eviscerate humanitarian trade with Iran that had already been sharply reduced following the U.S. exit from the nuclear deal. The Central Bank of Iran (CBI) had continued to play a major role in existing humanitarian trade with Iran, despite its prior designation, due to preexisting exemptions set down by Congress and the prior administration. 

“The new terrorism authorities (EO 13224) that the Central Bank of Iran has been designated under contains no similar exemption, nor has the Trump administration updated its guidance to add a new exemption. In fact, the Treasury guidance hints at this potential complication by noting that the U.S. ‘will continue to consider requests related to humanitarian trade with Iran as appropriate.’ Such actions were previously exempted by general license.

“The end result of this shift in policy – whether out of criminal negligence or willful vindictiveness – is likely to be pain for the Iranian people in the form of more medicine shortages for drugs produced in the West and sharply rising prices for food. 

“Congress and prior administrations understood the importance, and basic humanity, of exempting humanitarian goods from sanctions. The Trump administration has never updated its guidance related to humanitarian trade, creating a policy of deliberate ambiguity, and now appears to have deliberately removed one of the pillars allowing further humanitarian trade with the Iranian people. If the Trump administration does not immediately reverse its decision, Congress needs to legislate an exemption with haste. 

“After the crisis triggered by attacks on Saudi oil facilities, the President should be doing everything he can to undo his senseless actions that once again brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war. Instead, he is building a sanctions wall designed to lock both the Trump administration and a potential future administration into a playbook for war. There is no bigger loser of this policy than the Iranian people, who are crushed between their own government’s repression and inhumane sanctions that will now deliberately target humanitarian trade. This latest move – which could be illegal under international law – should be a wake-up call to all in the United States who claim support for the Iranian people. You can’t support maximum pressure and the Iranian people at the same time. It’s imperative that this dangerous step be reversed before the full impact is felt.”

NIAC Statement on Iran’s Intent to Reduce Compliance with Nuclear Deal

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, September 4, 2019 
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

WASHINGTON DC – Today, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned that Iran would reduce compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), this Friday. This is the third time Iran has taken such steps since the Trump Administration abrogated the agreement last year. The latest declaration comes ahead of the deadline set by Iran for Europe to uphold sanctions lifting obligations in exchange for Iran’s continued compliance with the nuclear accord. 

Simultaneously, French President Emmanuel Macron is leading an effort to offer Iran a bailout package in exchange for returning to full compliance with the deal. The proposal includes a $15 billion credit line to offset oil revenue lost under U.S. sanctions, but its payout requires a commitment from the U.S. not to block the funds.

In response to these latest developments, NIAC President Jamal Abdi issued the following statement: 

“Iran’s announcement is a predictable consequence of the Trump administration seemingly closing off every opportunity to resolve the Iran standoff diplomatically. A U.S. failure to pivot from maximum pressure to the diplomatic opportunities initiated by France and other American allies ensures a continued cycle of escalation that could quickly spin out of control.

“Iran’s decision to stop abiding by further JCPOA restrictions risks playing into the escalation trap set by John Bolton and other diplomatic spoilers. While France and other mediators have sought to mitigate U.S.-Iran tensions and safeguard the JCPOA, Bolton and other administration hawks are furiously attempting to fuel the flames of hostility.

“Importantly, Iran’s actions on the JCPOA are reversible and it has indicated its readiness to return to full compliance with the deal if parties to the accord provide Iran with sanctions relief. The current French proposal to establish a $15 billion credit line for Iran stands to achieve this, but only if President Trump allows it to materialize. 

“The ball is in the President’s court. He has the option to de-escalate the dangerous tensions with Iran and move the two countries off the path to war. But only if he shifts away from counterproductive “maximum pressure” and towards practical actions that build the confidence necessary for successful diplomacy.”

NIAC Congratulates Sharif University Students on 2019 AIAA Win

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, August 29, 2019 
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

NIAC President Jamal Abdi issued the following statement regarding travel and sanctions restrictions placed on Iranian students from Sharif University of Technology, who won the engine design competition at the 2019 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ (AIAA) Propulsion and Energy Forum:

“We would like to commend the group of Sharif students who defied the odds to win an engine design competition at a prestigious AIAA forum, as well as to extend our apologies on behalf of our elected government for the ridiculous and offensive hurdles placed in these students’ way.

“This group of engineering students from Sharif University entered the AIAA competition only to have their entry into the U.S. denied due to President Trump’s discriminatory Muslim ban that denies visas for all Iranians with few, apparently arbitrary, exceptions. Undeterred, the group participated by video conference and managed to win the competition only to learn that they could not receive the cash prize for their program due to U.S. sanctions.

“These students are among Iran’s best and brightest, and U.S. policies should seek to empower them and allow humanity to benefit from their ingenuity. However, instead of celebrating their successes, these extraordinary students have been met with hurdles and indignities. This is a microcosm of the self-defeating and nonsensical treatment of Iranians by U.S. government policies. The Iranian people already have to deal with their own government’s deplorable human rights record, corruption, and other failings. Unfortunately, our American government often chooses to makes the situation worse. 

“NIAC reiterates its condemnation of the Trump administration’s unjust and xenophobic Muslim ban and the broad sanctions policies that are punishing ordinary Iranians. NIAC calls for an end to these destructive measures and for a U.S. approach towards Iran that prioritizes peace and engagement. We will continue our work to press for change and remain determined to remove barriers and instead build bridges between the American and Iranian people.”