Kerry to Iranian Regime: Don’t Worry About Those Visa Waiver Program Changes

Patrick Goodenough | December 21, 2015 | 4:32am EST
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President Obama signs the omnibus spending bill in the Oval Office on Friday, December 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry assured his Iranian counterpart in a weekend letter that the administration will find ways to ensure that changes to the U.S. visa waiver program will not interfere with Iran’s “legitimate business interests.”

The changes, contained in the omnibus spending bill which President Obama signed into law on Friday, are set to affect citizens of the 38 visa waiver program (VWP) partner countries who have visited Iran (as well as Syria, Sudan and Iraq) since March 2011. Those individuals will be required to apply for a visa for future travel to the U.S.

Iran complained that the restrictions would violate the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which obliges the U.S. not to take any actions that will “adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.”

In his Dec. 19 letter to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Kerry said he was “confident that the recent changes in visa requirements passed in Congress, which the administration has the authority to waive, will not in any way prevent us from meeting our JCPOA commitments, and that we will implement them so as not to interfere with legitimate business interests of Iran.”

“To this end, we have a number of potential tools available to us, including multiple entry ten-year business visas, programs for expediting business visas, and the waiver authority provided under the new legislation,” Kerry wrote. “I am happy to discuss this further and provide any additional clarification.”

Kerry also assured Zarif that the U.S. government “remain[s] fully committed to the sanctions lifting provided for under the JCPOA.”

“We will adhere to the full measure of our commitments, per the agreement,” he said. “Our team is working hard to be prepared and as soon as we reach implementation day we will lift appropriate sanctions.”

A copy of Secretary of State John Kerry’s letter to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, posted on Twitter by Iranian journalist Abas Aslani. (Image: Twitter)

“Implementation day” – when the International Atomic Energy Agency verifies that Iran has completed the steps laid out in the JCPOA, leading to sanctions relief – could occur by the end of January according to the IAEA.

The VWP changes could affect, say, a German investor who has visited, or plans to visit, Iran for business purposes and is then required to apply for a visa for future trips to the U.S.

The changes also apply to dual foreigners from VWP partner countries who also hold dual Iranian, Syrian, Sudanese or Iraqi citizenship.

Thirty of the 38 VWP partner countries are in Europe. The others are Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Brunei.

Last week a State Department official said on Capitol Hill that European governments have warned that the changes in the spending bill could have a “very negative impact” on the JCPOA.

Changes to the visa waiver program were driven by concerns about security threats in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Iran, Syria and Sudan are all designated state-sponsors of terror, while Iraq is a major center for ISIS.

Many in Iran view the changes as part of broader congressional hostility towards Tehran and the JCPOA.

Masoud Soltanifar, one of Iran’s 12 vice-presidents who also holds a top tourism portfolio, told the IRNA news agency the VWP changes were among hostile steps taken by Congress following the announcement of the JCPOA last July.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran expects the parties to JCPOA to respond positively to Iran’s good faith and avoid passing visa waiver against tourists visiting Iran and not to create negative attitude about the US good faith about JCPOA,” he said.

The head of Iran’s tourism body, Morteza Rahmani-Movahed, said Tehran would lodge a complaint to the U.N.’s tourism body, the World Tourism Organization.

He told a press conference Sunday that some of the 38 VWP countries were Iranian “tourism targets.”

Iranian lawmakers also weighed in, with more than 100 signing a letter to President Hasan Rouhani urging the government to introduce “tough reciprocal measures” targeting the U.S., Iran Daily reported.

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