US Lifts Sanctions for Sending Aid to Iran, Banks Reluctant to Transfer Funds

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I am Marco Werman; this is The World. For years the United States has been ratcheting up economic sanctions on Iran and its leaders. The sanctions are a key component of American efforts to force Iran to halt its controversial nuclear program. Well, this week the United States temporarily eased those sanctions on Iran in order to allow the flow of relief funds to the country. Northern Iran was hit by two deadly earthquakes a couple of weeks ago but U.S. sanctions made it difficult for American relief groups to help. Now the U.S. Treasury says the non-governmental groups will be allowed to transfer up to $300,000 in quake aid to Iran over the next 45 days. National Iranian-American Council President Trita Parsi says that's the right thing to do, but in an editorial in the Huffington Post he says there are other obstacles that could prevent the aid from getting to the quake victims. Trita, what obstacles do you mean?

Trita Parsi: Well, the main obstacle that remains is the fact that the financial sanctions and the stigma that the U.S. government has created around banks dealing with Iran has led to a situation in which most banks actually, simply have cut all ties with Iranian banks and doesn't really matter if it's permissible or not, it's not worth the risk from their perspective to engage in any such transactions. As a result, whereas this is now permissible for them to send money to Iran, many organizations already contact me this morning and saying, "We're having difficulty finding banks that would agree to do it." We called 15 banks last week before this decision but focusing on whether they would agree to transfer money to Iran under other pre-existing exemptions; 12 out of 15 banks told us "No" flat out. Two of them told us that there would be so many difficulties that the intended recipients in Iran would never receive the money anyways, and one of them actually suggested to us that it's better that you find the person, give him the cash and have him fly to Iran.

Werman: So, what consequences will this entail for NGOs that want to bring money to these quake victims?

Parsi: The most likely consequence is that this decision by President Obama which was certainly a right decision, a good decision may be rendered inconsequential because banks are not doing it. Now, we're hoping, talking to the banks, making sure that they agree to do this because it is legal, they're not going to be faced with any negative consequences for it. If they agree to do it and they expedite it and make sure all of those things are done then I think we will see the American people's generosity be able to flow to the earthquake victims in Iran.

Werman: If this offer is good for the next 45 days, what would be the risks to any of those banks?

Parsi: Well, the problem is that it's costly for them to make an assessment on a case-by-case basis as to whether this transaction is legitimate or if they could potentially be any problems with it. As a result, they've just decided to just stop all transactions because it's cheaper that way and they have no risk because if, by mistake, they do something that is not permissible they would be faced with significant fines and as a result it's just easier for them to say we're not just gonna do it at all, period.

Werman: So, these double quakes hit a couple of weeks ago in Northern Iran. What do your sources on the ground tell you about how humanitarian help is being distributed right now?

Parsi: It's been very difficult. The Iranian government suffers under severe criticism as a result of slow reaction, imprecise reaction as well as a refusal to accept help from the outside over the first couple of days. Mindful of the fact that there is a situation in which people are very unhappy with the regime to begin with and when something like this happens, of course you're going to see a lot of that frustration come out. It's been interesting to see that people inside of Iran have organized their own convoys and taking matters in their own hands instead of relying on semi-government organizations.

Werman: Trita Parsi is President of the National Iranian-American Council; thank you very much for your time.

Parsi: Thank you for having me.