After slow start, U.S. allows donations to Iran’s quake victims

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 21, 2012 

— In a move that will bolster earthquake relief efforts in Iran, the Treasury Department on Tuesday issued temporary general licenses to nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations that allow them to receive donations from U.S. citizens to put toward on-the-ground relief efforts.

The Aug. 11 earthquake that hit northwest Iran has left 50,000 people homeless, said David Elliott, the assistant policy director at the National Iranian American Council. The Iranian government still has not called for any international aid.

Previously, nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, had to apply for specific permission to engage in earthquake relief efforts in Iran, and, activists said, approvals were either slow in coming or did not happen. John Sullivan, a Treasury spokesman, disputed that assessment, saying: “We reviewed all applications and approved all of them expeditiously.”

Children of Persia, a nonprofit that promotes the wellbeing of children, now will be able to operate on the ground in Iran, board member Ali Zinat said.

“This aids our ability to be more effective,” he said. “Before, (Treasury) hindered our ability to move forward.”

The announcement echoes the George W. Bush administration’s decision to ease sanctions on aid to Iran after a 2003 earthquake there.

General licenses are valid for the next 45 days and allow NGOs to transfer funds up to $300,000 to Iran to be used for humanitarian relief and reconstruction. The license prohibits any involvement with people or organizations that support terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.

NGOs have expressed concern over the details of the transferring of the funds.

“Banks in the United States and Europe, they are scared of working with organizations sending funds to Iran,” said Peyman Raoofi, the president of the Child Foundation USA, a nonprofit that works with impoverished children.

“I’m in the darkness for how I’m going to be able to transfer funds we have collected,” he said. “I’m hoping that in a few days that will become more clear.”

Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, said he hopes the practical impediments of the banks’ risk analyses will not become a problem.

“One thing that remains to be seen is to make sure that the U.S. banks actually honor this . . . because it’s just too much of a hassle for them and too much of a risk,” he said.

There are 24 Iranian banks that are sanctioned because of their connection with weapons of mass destruction proliferation and terrorism, Treasury spokesman John Sullivan said.

“We are very clear in our regulations and we do a lot of outreach with the banking community and the NGO community to explain what this general license covers,” he said.

After the general licenses were issued, Hani Ganji, an Iranian American, donated to Moms Against Poverty, one organization providing Iranian earthquake relief.

Regarding the 45-day limit, Ganji, of San Francisco, said reconstruction efforts in Iran will require a long period of time to complete.

“It’s better than nothing right now,” he said. “But as that region of the country rebuilds, they’re going to need more financial support.

Elliott said the general licenses are a step in the right direction.

“This will . . . show the Iranian people that the American people care about them, and that this is a humanitarian issue that transcends politics,” he said. “Even though the immediate aftermath of the earthquake is over, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Email: arudansky@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @akrudansky

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