Iran warns Obama over Visa Waiver restrictions

Iran warns Obama over Visa Waiver restrictions
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Congress’s efforts to change the rules for some foreign tourists could run afoul of the nuclear deal with Iran, officials in Tehran have warned the Obama administration.

Now, the Obama administration is rushing to reassure Iran, amid a backlash to changes that would make it more difficult for foreigners who have been to Iran to travel to the United States.

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This weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry sent Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif a letter, promising that changes to the Visa Waiver Program “will not in any way prevent us from meeting our [Iran deal] commitments, and that we will implement them so as not to interfere with legitimate business interests of Iran.” 

“There should be no reason why this new legislation interferes with the legitimate business interests of Iran,” State Department spokesman John Kirby added on Monday.

The legislation — which was included in a massive $1.1 trillion federal spending bill that President Obama signed into law last week — makes changes to a program allowing people from 38 nations, such as France and Japan, to visit the U.S. without obtaining a visa. 

Travelers would not be able to take part in the program if they are dual citizens of Iran, Syria or other countries linked to terrorism, or if they have visited those countries within the last five years.

Lawmakers and the Obama administration rallied behind the changes in recent weeks, after last month’s terror attack in Paris that killed 130 people. The terrorists in that incident were all European nationals and likely could have entered the U.S. without a visa.

According to Iran, however, the bill unfairly discriminates against their country and threatens to upset the multinational nuclear accord.

Over the weekend, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said that the new legislation “contradicts” the pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

"Definitely, this law adversely affects economic, cultural, scientific and tourism relations,” he claimed. 

The debate highlights the fragile nature of the accord, which sets limits on Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon in exchange for the rolling back of sanctions on its oil and financial sector. The deal was signed this summer, but will not be fully implemented until international inspectors certify that Iran has taken a number of steps to cut off the path to a nuclear weapon.

Under the terms of the deal, the U.S. and other nations are prohibited from applying new sanctions to replace the ones being rolled back, or from taking other steps that damage trade with Iran.

Critics of the Iran agreement are likely to use the latest friction as evidence that the JCPOA handicaps the U.S. by preventing Washington from enacting any additional measures to protect against Iran’s support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.

The Visa Waiver bill was not intended to undermine the nuclear deal, Kirby said on Monday.

Iran was included in the new legislation alongside Iraq and Syria because it remains a state sponsor of terrorism, he added.

“There are a number of ways in which legitimate business travel to Iran can still occur,” Kirby said.

The changes to the Visa Waiver Program do not prevent anyone who has traveled to Iran from coming to the U.S. Instead, it merely adds an extra hurdle, by requiring they obtain a visa, which requires additional screening.

“We have an obligation as well to look after the security and safety of the American people, and we’re going to obey the law,” Kirby said. “Like we expect Iran [to do], we will stay committed to our JCPOA commitments.”

In his letter this weekend, Kerry hinted at using special authority to waive restrictions in the new legislation.

However, such a move would surely incite congressional critics of the nuclear deal, who warn that it would be a capitulation to Iran. 

“Contrary to what the Secretary of State seems to be saying to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, it was not and has never been Congress’s intent to allow the administration to grant a blanket waiver to travelers to and from Iran in order to facilitate the implementation of the Iran deal,” No. 2 House Republican Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) said in a statement on Monday afternoon. 

Instead of “undermining congressional intent,” McCarthy added, the Obama administration should punish Iran for its two ballistic missile tests, which appear to be in violation of United Nations resolutions.

“Iran’s unwillingness to follow these international agreements should be a red flag that the Iran nuclear deal isn’t worth the paper it is written on,” McCarthy said.