Treasury Issues Temporary Exemption for Iran Earthquake Donations

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August 22, 2012

The Department of Treasury issued General License C on August 21, 2012 permitting American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to temporarily raise and send funds to Iran for humanitarian relief in the wake of the country’s August 11 earthquakes. The move comes days after NGOs and a bipartisan group of lawmakers called on the Obama administration to ease sanctions to assist victims in the quake-affected country. More than 300 people were killed and thousands were left homeless from the 6.3 and 6.4 magnitude earthquakes that destroyed over 130 villages in the country’s northwest provinces.

Under the license issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), NGOs can transfer up to $300,000 to Iran for relief and reconstruction activity related to the quake. Groups must submit detailed reports to Treasury about the assistance, including “the dollar amount of the transfers, the recipient(s) of the funds, and the intended use of the funds.” Assurances to banks conducting the transfers is also provided, as long as no money is transferred to entities black-listed by U.S. sanctions related to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. NGOs interested in transferring more than $300,000 need to request a specific license from Treasury. The license is in effect until Oct. 5. 
Treasury's announcement “is a big step forward,” Kay Guinane, the director of the Charity and Security Network, told The Hill. “I am concerned about the $300,000 spending limit and the vague description of the reporting requirement. Reporting the name of the Iranian NGOs that receive funds is feasible — reporting names of individuals getting the aid would not be feasible or desirable,” Guinane added.
Treasury had previously released guidance on giving to Iran on Aug. 14, but it did little to clarify the confusion found in the current U.S. sanctions regime. Prior to issuance of the new license, NGOs could donate food and medicine (non-monetary items) but could not send funds without obtaining a specific license from Treasury. But in the days after the earthquake, reports began circulating that efforts to send assistance permissible under the sanctions were being obstructed. “Banks, drug companies, and reportedly even the U.S. Postal Service have been unwilling to facilitate and send such items,” the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) reported on August 12. There were also complaints that U.S. banks were reluctant to process individual remittances even though they were already exempt from U.S. sanctions.  
"We hope the banks will take note of this and start doing things that are permissible, because otherwise this general license may have no effect at all,” NIAC president Trita Parsi told the Cable.
NIAC was heavily involved in pushing for the issuance of the license.  They had sent a letter to the head of OFAC requesting a general license similar to one that followed the massive earthquake in Bam, Iran in 2003. At the time, the Bush administration issued a general license for NGOs to assist Iranians that was valid for three months and renewed it twice. A similar letter was sent by another coalition of NGOs organized by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA).
These efforts were joined by an August 16 letter from 14 bipartisan Congressional members asking the President to “facilitate the timely and lawful delivery of humanitarian assistance” to the victims of the earthquake. 
Asked about the initial delay to approve a general license, OFAC spokesman John Sullivan, said, “We were examining a number of options to best serve the humanitarian relief effort including issuing specific licenses for aid as well as clarifying what aid was already covered by our existing guidelines.” 
Prior to this announcement, NGOs wanting to send earthquake relief to Iran had to apply for a specific license from Treasury. Aid groups responding to past emergencies have routinely described the process as slow and ineffective in meeting the needs of populations affected by armed conflict or natural disaster.   This was true in the aftermath of the Somali famine in the summer of 2011. Humanitarian groups were forced to wait on the sidelines as nearly 4 million people were at risk of starvation while Treasury decided what groups were permitted to reach civilians trapped in areas where al-Shabaab, a listed terrorist group, operated. Current law prohibits most contact with a listed terrorist group, making distribution of food to vulnerable people living in regions controlled by such groups nearly impossible.
U.S. sanctions permit NGOs to send food and medicine to Iran without a license, but many other types of goods are prohibited.  The New York Times reports that helicopters had to suspend rescue operations during the night after the quakes as Iran “is barred from purchasing night-vision materials, which could be used for military purposes as well as civilian missions.”
The Iranian government has been criticized for its poor response to the quakes, and has rejected assistance offered by the U.S. government. In a blog post, deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough said the U.S. remains “ready to provide emergency health care kits, plastic sheeting, blankets, hygiene kits, kitchen sets, plastic water containers and water treatment units, as well as other support through partner NGOs,” if the Iranian government reconsiders its stance.