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Only a small percentage of the populations of Iran and America have ever met face to face. Almost none of the citizens of both countries under the age of 35 have ever engaged in long, often fascinating and passionate conversations with each other. Expats who left Iran decades ago for various reasons and have taken US citizenship are perhaps an exception.
This partially accounts for the eagerness to talk which Americans find when they visit the country and meet with Iranian students. These students have a seemingly limitless energy and they love to spend hours discussing dozens of subjects, after quickly shedding a fair bit of their society’s social decorum.
Other visitors to Iran have commented on the ‘instinctive connections’ all foreigners, not just Americans, experience as they discover that Iranians bear little resemblance to Western Orientalist notions of what they are supposed to be like.
Students in Iran are very open to sharing their views on everything from countless political and religious subjects to how to apply to American universities for grad school. During visits to Iran, it is rare for this observer to meet with students (my favorite Iranians!) and not be asked about student exchange programs and how to obtain an American student visa so they can internationalize their higher education. The same questions are common across Syria and in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps.
Before the 1979 Iranian revolution and the 444 day-long American Hostage crisis, there were some 52,000 Americans studying in Iran. The number dropped to approximately 1,600 during the 1980-1990’s. As recently as 24 months ago, the number was exactly two. As of yesterday, there are five Americans studying in Iran, perhaps an early sign of a thaw resulting from the recent nuclear agreement.
We have all heard the excitement from international business and banking interests eager to engage across the board once sanctions are lifted, as per the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) agreement, as well as the unfreezing of tens of billions of dollars of Iranian assets that have been held in overseas banks under EU and US sanctions. This observer is consistently amazed when chatting with Iranians who are much better informed than he about many details of this subject.
Three young lady students from different parts of Iran, studying at Shahid Beheshti University, which offers more than 70 programs at Master’s and over 30 at Ph.D. levels, delivered an animated 30 minute discourse to their rapt new American friend on how they see the reality of an end to the sanctions.
They explained that they – along with most Iranians they know – are currently holding back on their spending, waiting for the drop in prices and the arrival of better quality imported goods. This is despite the fact that President Hassan Rouhani’s administration has managed to cut inflation from approximately 40 per cent to 12.6 per cent over the past two years, ending a three-year period of economic contraction, with a 3 per cent growth rate. They assertively explained that any real dividends from the nuclear deal for average Iranians will take many months to materialize, as Iran’s economy is still experiencing stagnation. Oil prices have also added to the strain by a halving of oil-based revenues, the country’s economic lifeblood.
Iranians believe that some trade between Iran and the west will no doubt occur in the coming months. Economists tend to agree. But it won’t amount to much anytime soon if AIPAC and its partner, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Financial Assets Control (OFAC), succeed in their continuing anti-Iran campaign which has been revved up since this summer’s Congressional vote in favor of the JCPA.
AIPAC sent a letter to Congress right after the vote laying out a new anti-Iran front which includes Israeli agents, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and its “Counselor” Dennis Ross, and criticizing President Obama, as well as urging him to transfer to Israel the “mountain-busting” 30,000 pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) for use against Iran when needed. The MOP is the world’s largest non-nuclear weapon and designed to destroy hardened targets, bunkers, and other locations deep underground. The MOP hits the ground at supersonic speed after being released from a B-2 bomber.
Since Israel also does not have the B-2, AIPAC is seeking pledges from its agents in Congress and from Presidential candidates that the new administration will provide both the bomb and the bomber. Five Republican candidates, including aides to Mike Huckabee and Senator Lindsay Graham, have assured AIPAC that they see “no problem” with Israel’s request.
Also engaged in keeping the pressure on Iranians is Adam Szubin, AIPAC supporter and former director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which enforces sanctions. Mr. Szubin has recently been appointed the U.S. Treasury’s acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. He has made plain this past month that pressure on Iran will intensify and those who fantasize about doing business with the Islamic Republic, with or without sanctions, will face more hurdles. The latter includes, for example, barring from U.S. markets any foreign banks who knowingly or unknowingly engage in and transaction with any firm doing any business with Khatam al-Anbia (the Iranian construction company owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or IRGC).
OFAC and AIPAC have publicly pledged to combat “all of Iran’s other malign activities outside the agreement.” “They will find themselves back on the list, and the Iranians I believe understand that,” Szubin stated this past week.
He added, “We do not take the release of one dollar of sanctions lightly. We are committed to countering Iran’s ongoing illicit conduct and will aggressively enforce sanctions that target Iran’s support for terrorist groups, its abuses of human rights or its destabilizing activities in the region. That is why we are intensifying our work alongside Israel to continue to disrupt the front companies, intermediaries and money launderers that enable terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Iran’s IRGC Qods Force.”
While the full-speed-ahead campaign to tighten sanctions in Washington accelerates, little to date have been done toward lessening medical and quality of life sanctions for either the people of Iran or Syria. As has been widely stated by medical personnel in both countries, while the US-led sanctions are claimed by OFAC/AIPAC and some in Congress to be ‘truly humanitarian’ because medicines are exempt, the reality is that vital medical supplies are not entering either country because businesses in the west do not want risk huge OFAC fines or being barred from US markets as their lawyers try to understand the murky OFAC regs.
This has contributed to some absurd discussions and actions by OFAC that lack any common sense at all. For example, OFAC has issued a list of medical devices and items that are eligible to be exported to Iran and Syria otherwise sanctioned under a general license. Both countries, but especially Syria, need medicine and medical equipment badly. There has been plenty of criticism from health workers and medical NGO’s working on the ground in both countries because of what appears to be arbitrary omissions of necessary and common medical items that should indeed be eligible for import.
One recent example was last week’s discussion of this subject at the President’s Export Council Subcommittee on Export Administration. As Kathleen Palma, GE’s senior counsel for international trade explained to OFAC:
“I would note that any kind of condom is on the (exempted) list, even though they tend not to be part of either country’s culture, but baby warmers and units for neonatal intensive care are not on the list and hence banned.”
OFAC’s representative assured the lady and the public that after a decade of sanctions, the agency was in the process of reviewing proposals to add more medical items to the exempted list. No time frame was indicated.
Meanwhile, AIPAC is arranging for a new version of a 2012 Federal Law (H.R. 1905) to be submitted to Congress. The new version will exclude Iranian students from being able to receive a U.S. student visa to study in America if the student is seeking to participate in higher education in preparation for a career in Iran’s petroleum, natural gas, nuclear energy, nuclear science, or any related nuclear engineering fields.
The Zionist lobby, having suffered a rare defeat in Congress recently, blames Iran-lovers and Israel-haters. It will seek to keep Americans from getting to know Iranians, and that includes students. The lobby fears that when the Iranian and American public associate, they will quite likely become valued friends and this is anathema for the Zionist regime which still occupies Palestine.
America loses if AIPAC/OFAC succeeds and forces retention of the US sanctions. According to many international lawyers, these kinds of sanctions are similar to acts of terrorism, as they target civilian populations for political purposes such as regime change.
One imagines that every American who visits Iran quickly comes to realize not just how much Americans have in common with Iranians (which is a whole lot), but also the possibility that, beneath the thin skin of political rhetoric of the leaders of both nations, we may achieve a special relationship based on shared values and mutual respect.
This will be to the profound benefit of both peoples.