April 4, 2024

Sanctions Are More Important Than Your Civil Rights

By Jamal Abdi

Iranian Americans who have had their bank accounts closed or who have been subjected to invasive and persistent questioning by their banks because of their Iranian heritage were dealt another blow in the effort to stop banking discrimination.

Two years ago, Bank of America was sued for shutting down the bank account of an Iranian green card holder whose account was closed despite him complying with the bank’s repeated requests to prove his residency. Over the course of the lawsuit, the bank was forced to reveal that they had shut down a staggering 15,000 bank accounts of Iranian Americans and Iranians in the U.S.

But late last week, the court ruled that Bank of America is partially shielded from such lawsuits because actions that appear to be discriminatory may be necessary for the bank to comply with broad U.S. sanctions.

The ruling validates what has been the status quo for years: it is okay for banks to discriminate against you due to your Iranian heritage because national security policies take precedence over your civil rights. The logic, essentially, is that it is best to err on the side of enforcing sanctions rather than on the side of protecting civil rights — it is better to shut down the bank accounts of thousands of innocent people in America rather than risk a single violation of sanctions on Iran.

But what are these potential sanctions violations in question? Surely they must be vital to U.S. security interests if they justify such discrimination. Well, U.S. sanctions say it is illegal for a bank to provide services to anyone who is currently inside Iran. So, god forbid, if an Iranian American visits family in Iran and checks their bank balance online while in Iran, the bank could face major penalties. Hence, banks go to enormous lengths to profile and ultimately screen out customers whose heritage may expose the bank to such liabilities.

While this ruling may be appealed, for the time being it effectively means that discrimination against Iranian Americans by banks will continue to get a green light and your bank account could be closed at any time if the bank decides something about you suggests you pose a risk of being inside Iran.

While we will continue to support legal means to stop banking discrimination, the ruling indicates this is fundamentally a policy problem — and the fact is, there are policy solutions available that NIAC and others have offered to successive Administrations. But while lawmakers have increasingly spoken out for the rights of Iranian Americans and other impacted communities in the face of banking discrimination, and Biden Administration officials have increasingly acknowledged their concern about this matter, the political reverence for sanctions in Washington knows few bounds.

Whatever the politics, this is a policy that has failed to achieve its objectives  and it is ordinary people — not the politicians touting the sanctions nor the policymakers crafting the measures nor the banks implementing them nor even the Iranian officials who are supposed to be the ultimate target of such measures — who are asked to sacrifice. Perhaps if the sanctions actually worked to improve human rights or reduce tensions in the region or achieve any positive goal, one could try to rationalize sacrificing their rights and ability to maintain a bank account in the service of these measures. As it is, it’s just more salt in the wound of a failed policy.

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