(CNSNews.com) – Iranians with dual nationality have been involved in terror plots against the U.S. and Israel, including a foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant, an expert on Iran told lawmakers on Wednesday.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Fellow Emanuele Ottolenghi was testifying before two House Oversight subcommittees, looking into the administration’s response to newly enacted changes to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), designed to prevent terrorists from exploiting the program.
The restrictions apply both to citizens of the 38 VWP partner countries who have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan since 2011, and to citizens of VWP partner countries who hold dual Iranian, Syrian, Sudanese or Iraqi citizenship.
Secretary of State John Kerry assured his Iranian counterpart in a December letter that the administration would ensure the changes did not impact Iran’s “legitimate business interests” in the light of sanctions relief under the nuclear deal, citing the waiver authority built into the legislation.
Republican lawmakers accused Kerry of trying to “appease the regime,” and two separate hearings were held on Capitol Hill on the subject Wednesday.
The changes do not prevent the affected people from visiting the U.S. altogether, but add an extra layer of screening onto their visa applications – a requirement for an interview at a U.S. consular section abroad.
In written testimony, Ottolenghi argued that the requirement in the case of a dual national of Iran and a VWP country was a “not unduly burdensome measure,” but critical to U.S. national security, given the regime’s history.
He said Tehran has long used Iranians with dual passports to carry out illegal activity, including terrorism, illicit finance, and acquiring missile or nuclear weapons-related technology.
“Clearly, not every dual national is an Iranian agent. But virtually all agents of the Iranian regime who over the past decade were involved in conspiracies to commit acts of terrorism, illicit financial activities, nuclear and ballistic procurement, were dual passport holders,” Ottolenghi wrote.
“The visa waiver exception will make it more difficult for them to enter the United States and engage in criminal activities on American soil.”
At one point, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who opposes the VWP changes, asked whether witnesses could provide “a single example of somebody who came to this country and is a dual citizen of one of these countries [Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan] that presented a terrorist threat that, you know, with credible evidence?”
“And I’m talking about people who were either born in the United States and became by virtue of their parentage a citizen of one of these countries, or fled here and never went back,” Massie added.
“Yes sir,” replied Ottolenghi. “Mansour Arbabsiar, involved in a plot to try and murder the Saudi ambassador to the United States in October 2011. Iranian-American [dual] national, living in Texas, instructed and abetted by the – a cousin from Iran, involved in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Forces.”
(Arbabsiar was sentenced in May 2013 to 25 years’ imprisonment for his key role in the Qods Force plot to assassinate then-Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir, now the kingdom’s foreign minister. Although the ambassador was the target, the plot involved plans to bomb a restaurant in Washington, and Arbabsiar was alleged to have said that if a hundred other people die in the process, “f**k ’em.”)
‘Western passports facilitated their entries and operations’
In his written testimony Ottolenghi cited the Arbabsiar case, and said Iran’s Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon had also used dual nationals in a 2012 attack on a bus at an airport in Bulgaria in which five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian were killed. He said the three terrorists involved were dual Lebanese-Australian, Lebanese-Canadian, and Lebanese-French nationals.
Other terror plots targeting Israelis in Europe involved a dual Lebanese-Swedish national arrested in Cyprus, Hossam Yaacoub, who while on trial admitted having undertaken courier-type tasks for Hezbollah in Turkey, France and the Netherlands, all while traveling on a Swedish passport.
Two other terror plots cited by Ottolenghi involved an Iranian-Canadian national (a refugee) arrested in Bulgaria, and a Lebanese-Canadian arrested in Cyprus in possession of large quantities of explosives, later jailed for plotting terror attacks against Israeli targets.
“Dual nationals played a critical role in Iran’s terror plots,” Ottolenghi asserted. “Their Western passports facilitated their entries and operations into the countries where they planned to execute their criminal objectives.”
Critics call the changes to the VWP inherently discriminatory.
“As a result of this legislation, citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries can no longer travel to the U.S. visa-free if they are dual national of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria – solely due to their ancestry,” Massie said.
“Let that sink in,” he added. “This feels like discrimination to me.”
Massie said if the affected VWP countries decided to reciprocate, millions of “freedom-loving Americans” with dual nationality could be discriminated against, merely as a result of “who their parents were.”
Apart from the joint hearing of the Oversight subcommittees on National Security and Government Operations, the VWP changes were also the focus of a hearing Wednesday by the House Homeland Security Committee.