State Dep’t Warns Changes to Visa Waiver Program Could Have ‘Very Negative Impact’ on Iran Nuke Deal

By Patrick Goodenough | December 18, 2015 | 4:32 AM EST

A provision in the omnibus spending bill would affect citizens of visa waiver program partner countries who have visited Iran, Syria, Sudan or Iraq since March 2011. (Image: CNSNews.com/DHS)

(CNSNews.com) – A move to tighten the U.S. visa waiver program – included in the omnibus spending bill in response to heightened terror-related security concerns – could have “a very negative impact” on implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement, a senior State Department official told lawmakers on Thursday.

The $1.1-trillion omnibus bill contains a provision that would penalize citizens of the 38 visa waiver program (VWP) countries who, since March 201, have visited a U.S.-designated state-sponsor of terrorism (Iran, Syria and Sudan) or Iraq – by requiring them to apply for a visa for future travel to the U.S.

The Iran nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), includes a commitment by the U.S. and European Union member states not to take actions that will “adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.”

During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the JCPOA Thursday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) raised the possibility that changes to the VWP affecting people who have visited Iran may violate that JCPOA commitment.

“We are about to pass a reform of the visa waiver program that will include in it a naming of Iran such that individuals who have traveled to Iran will no longer be eligible for the visa waiver program,” he said.

“There has been a suggestion that there is a piece of the [nuclear] agreement that obligates us not to take steps that would stop economic relations between other countries and Iran – that we could perhaps be in jeopardy of breaching the agreement.”

Directing his question to the State Department’s coordinator for JCPOA implementation, Stephen Mull, Murphy asked, “Have the Europeans raised concerns to you or have others raised concerns to you about that specific provision?”

Mull replied that both he and Secretary of State John Kerry had heard from “very senior” European officials “that it could have a very negative impact on the deal.”

The VWP allows citizens of 38 specified countries – most of them in Europe, plus Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Brunei and Singapore – visa-free travel to the U.S.

Changes to the program included in the spending bill would revoke that privilege both for VWP partner countries’ citizens who have visited Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan, and for foreigners from partner countries who also hold dual Iranian, Syrian, Sudanese or Iraqi citizenship.

In an open letter published in The Hill on Monday, ambassadors to the U.S. from E.U. member states expressed concern about the implications of the proposed VWP changes.

They cautioned against “introducing elements of rigidity or automaticity” into the program.

“A blanket restriction on those who have visited Syria or Iraq, for example, would most likely only affect legitimate travel by businesspeople, journalists, humanitarian or medical workers while doing little to detect those who travel by more clandestine means overland,” the diplomats wrote. “European Union citizens who are dual nationals of a proscribed country would also be disproportionately and unfairly affected.”

 Meanwhile the Tehran Times quoted a former Iranian nuclear negotiator and senior diplomat, Mostafa Dolatyar, as saying the visa waiver changes in the omnibus bill were an “anti-Iranian” move, aimed at increasing the costs for Europeans wanting to do business with Iran as sanctions start being eased under the JCPOA.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a letter to Senate congressional leaders said the proposed changes to the VWP would subject affected individuals “to a process that raises concerns about ethnic and national origin profiling and other arbitrary practices.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow