The deadly double earthquakes in Iran over the weekend, the first natural disaster there since the United States imposed onerous financial sanctions on that country because of its disputed nuclear program, have raised worries among Iranian-Americans about where to send donations — and whether such aid is even legal.
American officials said Monday that humanitarian aid for victims of the disaster, which left more than 300 people dead and thousands homeless in a Turkish-speaking region of northwest Iran, was exempt from sanctions. But the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based advocacy group representing Americans of Iranian descent, said that given the severity and scope of the sanctions, “there are serious concerns that humanitarian relief will be hindered.”
In a statement on its Web site, the council said, “The Obama administration should take all steps necessary to ensure that relief efforts are not obstructed due to the dispute between the U.S. and Iranian governments.”
Trita Parsi, the president of the council, said in a telephone interview that the American ban on financial transactions, which applies to two dozen Iranian banks, including the central bank, had made American banks reluctant to deal with any monetary transfers to Iran, even if they were permitted. “Most banks just cut it off entirely,” he said. “We have to remember the policy of clipping the Iranian economy — it has become a stigma.”
Mr. Parsi said the only practical alternative for Iranian-Americans who wanted to help the quake victims was to send money via family remittances, which are permitted under the sanctions, with the hope that the aid would reach its intended recipients or aid organizations working inside Iran. “A lot of people are very upset,” he said.
The Iranian American Bar Association, a Washington-based lawyer group, also expressed concern. In a letter to Adam J. Szubin, director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees the sanctions, the association said it was worried “that the current United States sanctions imposed on Iran will hinder efforts to provide immediate humanitarian relief.” The association urged the assets control office to reassure financial institutions “that they are permitted to process transactions on behalf of U.S. persons related to earthquake relief efforts in Iran.”
Americans have no simple way to send relief aid to Iranian victims. Major international relief organizations like the Red Cross, Mercy Corps and AmeriCares said Monday that they were not accepting donations, for now, because Iran had not asked for their help. “At this point, the Iranian government is managing this all on their own through a local relief organization (the Iranian Red Crescent), so we’re not responding,” Salma Bahramy, a spokeswoman for Mercy Corps, said in an e-mail.
At the same time, the Iranian government has sent conflicting signals about whether it is accepting aid and which countries would be acceptable donors. Many countries, including Iran’s neighbors as well as the United States, have expressed condolences and offered emergency relief supplies. “We stand ready to offer assistance in this difficult time,” the White House said Sunday on its Web site.
Pooya Hajian, a spokesman for Iran’s Red Crescent Society, said Iran would not accept aid from any country, only from other Red Cross organizations. “There are no exceptions in this,” he answered specifically about the offer from the United States. “We have thanked Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia for their offers for help, but our domestic capabilities are sufficient.”
But the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi as saying at a news conference in the northwestern city of Tabriz on Monday that “in these circumstances, we are ready to receive assistance from various countries for the earthquake-stricken people.”
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