GOP targets Kerry over visa waivers for Iran

Francis Rivera

House Republicans are piling on Secretary of State John Kerry for suggesting that the U.S. could waive new visa restrictions to help foreigners doing business with Iran.

Prominent lawmakers have scolded the State Department in recent days, following a letter Kerry sent to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that floated removing the new limits on people who travel to Iran or are dual citizens with the country and one of 38 nations that participate in the Visa Waiver Program.

ADVERTISEMENT
"This administration's continued capitulation to Iran continues to reach new lows,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Our government does not work like the Iranian regime, and the secretary of State cannot throw the Constitution out the window,” McCaul added. “Iran is the world's largest state sponsor of Islamist terrorism, and our message to them is clear: as long as you fuel networks of terror, individuals connected to your country will not be allowed to enter ours without closer scrutiny."

“Waiving restrictions on the Visa Waiver Program for persons who have traveled to Iran or who hold Iranian citizenship would put U.S. citizens at risk,” echoed Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) in a letter to Kerry on Tuesday. 

A day earlier, No. 2 House Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) insisted that the law is “not ambiguous” and would not allow Kerry to waive the new restrictions for Iran.

The outcry follows comments from the State Department in recent days responding to concerns from Iran about the new restrictions on people who have traveled to or hold dual citizenship with Iran.

Under new changes enacted last week, people who have visited or hold dual citizenship with Iran, Iraq, Syria and other terrorism hotbeds would not be eligible for a federal program waiving visas for some foreign travelers. Instead, those travelers would have to obtain a visa before entering the U.S. The restrictions are meant to protect U.S. national security in the wake of last month's terror attacks by extremist radicals in Paris, backers say.

However, Iran has warned that the new legislation could upend the multinational nuclear deal, which sets limits on Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon in exchange for the lifting of sanctions on its oil and financial sector. The law makes it more difficult for people to do business with Iran, officials in Tehran claim, thereby violating the terms of the agreement.

A previously little-noticed provision of the law gives the Department of Homeland Security the authority to allow people who would otherwise now need a visa to enter the U.S. without one if it “is in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States.”

On Tuesday, the State Department maintained that no decisions had been made about whether or not to lift the restrictions for people with ties to Iran.

“It’s too early to see if and when that authority will be used,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said, while noting that the option is a possibility under the law.

“I know they’re in conversations now,” she added.