U.S. government red tape is preventing American Iranians from sending much-needed aid to the thousands of victims of Saturday’s two earthquakes in northern Iran, aid organizations say.
The earthquake killed 300 people and injured thousands in northern Iran. Food and material aid are desperately needed, but aid organizations are telling the government that shipping it is too slow and that direct cash aid is needed.
The trouble is that sending money to Iran runs smack into the U.S. government’s sanctions regime, which is in place to stop Iran’s nuclear program and therefore restricts any banking transactions between the two countries. This current predicament illustrates a problem that has been tripping up U.S. policy toward Iran for years.
While the U.S.government has made an offer of aid to the government of Iran, it has so far been rejected. However, 10 Iranian aid organizations have asked the U.S. Treasury for a license to transfer money to earthquake victims. Such a license was created in 2003 by the Bush Administration to help victims of another devastating Iranian earthquake.
“We need to send cash, and the current sanctions make transfer of money toIranvery difficult,” said Dr. Peyman Raoofi, the head of the Child Foundation inLos Angeles, told the BBC earlier this week. Assurance to financial institutions is needed so “they are permitted to process transactions on behalf of US persons related to earthquake-relief efforts in Iran.”
As a matter of humanitarian concern, the Obama Administration should expedite a license to help Iran’s victims. It may take the intervention of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, as the main obstacle is the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) within Treasury.
OFAC, which dates back to World War II, handles transactions with all countries under U.S. trade and economic sanctions. It is OFAC’s responsibility to ensure that funding for the victims does not get siphoned off by the Iranian government—not an easy task, admittedly. However, OFAC’s operations are notoriously bureaucratic and slow, even mysterious, to private observers and even other parts of the U.S. government trying to aid the democratic opposition in Iran.
While it is extremely important that sanctions on the Iranian government are as tight as possible to deny it funding for nuclear technology (a race we seem to be losing), finding ways to aid Iranian citizens against brutal repression is also a top priority.
State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland has stated that groups helping Iran will not face U.S. government prosecution. However, banks asked to handle financial transactions will need a more substantial guarantee from OFAC. Helping Iranians today and in the future involves speedy action.
Mr. Geithner, over to you.