U.S. sanctions are impeding relief efforts for Iran-Iraq earthquake victims

It's difficult to get aid to survivors of the deadliest earthquake in 2017.

Earthquake survivors mourn in front of destroyed houses in Sarpol-e-Zahab in western Iran, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Earthquake survivors mourn in front of destroyed houses in Sarpol-e-Zahab in western Iran, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

As Iran struggles to provide much-needed relief to victims of the devastating 7.3 magnitude earthquake that struck on Sunday night, U.S. sanctions have complicated efforts by people in the United States wishing to donate to those in need.

More than 500 people were killed and close to 7,400 were injured in the earthquake, which struck the Iran-Iraq border and left homes and villages utterly destroyed. A majority of the victims were in Iran’s province of Kermanshah. The predominantly Kurdish town of Sarpol-e Zahab was especially hard hit, and many families have created makeshift shelters as they await cold and freezing temperatures in the days to come. While the Iranian government has delivered some assistance in the form of tents, food, and water, many survivors have criticized what they view as a slow response.

The earthquake is now considered to be the deadliest of 2017 — but international relief efforts are hindered due to U.S. sanctions and confusion about where it is permissible to donate.

The U.S. comprehensive trade embargo with Iran prohibits Americans from sending funds directly to Iranian charities without a license from the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Americans are also forbidden from sending funds directly to any non-U.S. charity if those funds are specifically intended to be used for relief efforts in Iran.

This means that things like Facebook fundraisers by private citizens seeking to collect donations for the victims are technically prohibited. And so are donations by Americans to such groups as the The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) — a non-U.S. charitable organization — are technically prohibited.  

Tyler Cullis, an associate attorney at Ferrari & Associates P.C. who specializes in U.S. economic sanctions, told ThinkProgress that thousands of people have already donated to such groups in the days following the quake.

“Those organizations have a much better presence on the ground than U.S. NGOs [non-governmental organizations],” Cullis said. Given the high number of donations, he added, OFAC will likely ignore the sanctions violations.

“It wouldn’t be a good look for OFAC to start issuing administrative subpoenas for people seeking to help relief efforts,” Cullis said. “It’s problematic for OFAC in and of itself because if it allows this conduct … it hurts the integrity of sanctions programs.”

U.S. law allows donations to U.S. NGOs that deliver humanitarian services to Iran, but fear of sanctions violations can also complicate those transactions. If a U.S. NGO is operating under an appropriate OFAC license, there are very few U.S. banks who are willing to take the risk in processing the donations, Cullis said. This slows the relief process down considerably, forcing many NGOs to hand carry cash to Iran.

Still, the current sanctions situation is an improvement from years past, when donations to U.S. NGOs were prohibited. Following the 2012 earthquakes, which hit Iran’s East Azerbaijan province and killed 300 people, the Obama administration temporarily lifted sanctions to allow donations to U.S. NGOs for a period of 45 days. The policy was ultimately extended permanently in 2013.

Ryan Costello, assistant policy director at the National Iranian American Council, said that while progress has been made in addressing sanctions obstacles since 2012, “there are still hurdles.”

“I think the fact that there’s no direct banking channel, that we still have this embargo in place, a lot of these banking issues are going to persist until there are direct financial ties between the U.S. and Iran,” Costello told ThinkProgress. “The Trump administration and the Treasury Department should look closely at this.” 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited the earthquake zone on Tuesday to assess the damage. At a cabinet meeting, he raised concerns about possible corruption during his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration that may have resulted in the shoddy construction of residential buildings that were completely destroyed by the earthquake.

As Iran struggles to cope, Iranians have rallied together to raise funds and supplies. Several countries in the region have also offered humanitarian assistance, including Turkey and Israel. According to the Israeli government, however, Iran immediately rejected Israel’s offer.

“We are grateful for global expressions of sympathy and offers of assistance. For now, we can manage with our own resources,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a tweet on Monday.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly linked news about the American Red Cross to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It also incorrectly attributed donations to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to the ICRC. All groups are part of the Global Red Cross Network, but operate as independent, separate entities.

Full disclosure: The author of this post was an employee of the National Iranian American Council from July 2015 to August 2017.