A group of congressional leaders, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R – Calif.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R – Calif.), and the heads of two key committees, wrote a letter on Wednesday to Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson expressing concern that the administration intended to waive visa restrictions on business travelers to Iran. The letter stressed that this would undercut recent legislation passed and signed by President Barack Obama, which tightens the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and does not include Iran as an eligible country.
As you know, the White House was an active participant in negotiation of the final text of the bill and prior to House passage expressed its support for the bill, in part, based on changes made as a result of those discussions. As it was part of those active negotiations, there was reason to believe the Administration would faithfully implement this law.
However Secretary Kerry’s letter to Foreign Minister Zarif calls into question the Administration’s intentions. The law prohibits the vast majority of citizens of countries participating in the VWP who travel to Iran or are Iranian-dual nationals, from being able to use the VWP to enter the United States. They will instead be required to obtain a visa – a process which citizens of most countries must go through before traveling to the United States. The bill also contains very limited exceptions to the VWP travel prohibition. It also gives the Department of Homeland Security Secretary the ability to waive the prohibition on an individual basis if it is in ‘the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States.’ This does not allow for the waiving of the VWP travel prohibition for an entire class of individuals.
Based on the letter to Foreign Minister Zarif, we are deeply concerned that the narrowly-intended use of the waiver authority will be ignored in favor of applying the waiver authority to those who have traveled to Iran for business purposes. Not only was such an exemption from the law not included in the legislation, it was specifically discussed during bill negotiations with Administration staff and expressly refused by Members of Congress despite the inclusion of two other exemptions. This letter serves to dispel any notion that the Congressional intent would allow the waiver authority to be used for business travelers.
The letter, which was also signed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R – Va.), House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R – Texas), and Rep. Candice Miller (R – Mich.), the author of The Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, concluded by addressing the issue at the core of the controversy.
“Iran is impacted by this new law because it is a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism,” the representatives wrote. “The simplest way to eliminate this restriction is for Iran to end its support of terrorism. We are deeply concerned that this point was absent from your recent correspondence with the Iranian Foreign Minister and urge the Administration to press Tehran on this, as well as its recent missile tests and persistent jailing of Americans. The problem is with Iranian actions, not the new visa waiver law.”
Wednesday’s letter is the latest congressional response to Kerry’s claim that the administration will defer to Tehran’s demands on the Visa Waiver Program in order to avoid Iranian claims that the U.S. is violating the nuclear deal. On Tuesday, McCaul told USA Today that the Obama administration’s “capitulation to Iran continues to reach new lows.” Also on Tuesday, Rep. Robert Dold (R – Ill.) and 20 House members sent Kerry a letter calling his comments “beyond belief.”
Josh Rogin and Eli Lake of Bloomberg View recently observed that the administration has placed more focus on ensuring American compliance with the nuclear deal than on publicly pressuring Iran to uphold the accord, even as the regime detained an American citizen and a U.S. resident, sentenced an American journalist to prison, violated United Nations resolutions with its ballistic missile tests, and stepped up its bloody campaign in Syria.
At a hearing on the nuclear deal in July, Kerry told Sen. Jeff Flake (R – Ariz.) that Iran had agreed that non-nuclear sanctions would not be prohibited by the nuclear deal.
We’re not going to come back and just slap [sanctions] on again, but that absolutely does not mean that we are precluded from sanctioning Iranian actors, sectors, as any actions or circumstances warrant. So all of our other sanctions authorities remain in place, they are unaffected by this agreement, and Iran only said, if you read what it says, that they would treat the imposition of new nuclear related sanctions as the grounds to cease performing. But they are clear and we are clear that we have all other kinds of authorities and let me specific on that because it’s important for this whole debate to be clear.