Friday, August 24, 2012

WH Relaxed Iran Sanctions Under Pressure

by Alana Goodman

The Cable’s Josh Rogin has more on the Obama administration’s decision to allow non-profit groups to send hundreds of thousands of dollars each in cash to Iran as part of earthquake relief efforts. Rogin reports that the White House was initially worried about the optics of temporarily relaxing sanctions so close to the election, but eventually agreed after getting support from the State Department:

State Department officials argued in favor of granting the license, while the White House resisted the move, worried about how even a temporary and limited relief of sanctions against Iran would play in the media so close to the presidential election. Eventually, with the support of top State Department officials, the White House was persuaded to agree to the move, these sources said.

The National Iranian American Council, a group that has advocated for weaker sanctions and other pro-regime policies, also played a major role in lobbying the administration (the organization touts a conference call it set up with the White House about this issue on its website).

Unsurprisingly, Rogin also reports there are concerns on Capitol Hill over whether the cash will make it to the people who need it, or whether it will intercepted by the Iranian government.

Treasury officials and NIAC downplayed these worries:

Parsi said the best way to prevent the money from getting into Iranian government hands is to work through respected NGOs that are based in the United States and have a presence in Iran.

There are some checks on the aid, Treasury officials say.

“The license specifically forbids any dealings with entities on the OFAC SDN list such as the IRGC,” Treasury Department spokesman John Sullivan told The Cable, referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. “There is also a mandated report to the Treasury and State Departments so we can make sure the money does not end up in the wrong hands.”

Obviously that’s the hope, but what about the groups controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps?

For example, will American groups be able to send money to the Iranian Red Crescent — Iran’s most prominent “humanitarian relief” group? The Red Crescent isn’t on the Specially Designated Nationals list, but the group is reportedly controlled by the IRGC, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2008.

While NIAC maintains that there’s precedent for the Obama administration’s decision, citing a similar sanctions waiver by President Bush after the 2003 earthquake in southern Iran that may not be the most assuring comparison. There have been allegations that much of the international aid was stolen at the time, as the New York Times reported yesterday:

Pouria, an office manager with broad shoulders, said he made a similar trip in 2003 to Bam, a southern city where a powerful earthquake killed 25,000 people, many of them buried in rubble. After the world gave money to help, Pouria said, he saw a lot of it disappear in the wrong pockets.

“Bam was a lesson for me,” Pouria said he had reminded his wife after news of this month’s earthquakes. “We normal people should take the initiative.”

His feeling was echoed in the doubts expressed by many Iranians, even senior leaders and lawmakers, about the ability of the official aid organizations. Members of Parliament representing the quake-stricken region complained to Iranian news agencies of shortages. Parliament called in the director of the Red Crescent for questioning.

What exactly are the safeguards to ensure that won’t happen again?

Alana Goodman

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