White House Visa Waiver Plan Comes Under Fire at Congressional Hearing

The provisions that the Obama administration is considering for the Visa Waiver Program, which would exempt Iranian dual nationals from having to obtain a visa when traveling to the United States, pose both a security risk and a threat to the sanctions regime in place against Tehran, according to testimony from a House Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday.

Emanuele Ottolenghi, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Congress that Iran “has long relied on Iranian nationals who are dual passport holders to pursue illegal activities, including terrorism, illicit finance, and procurement of technology for its ballistic-missile and nuclear-weapons programs.” He explained that not every dual national of Iran is an 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.”

When asked by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) whether he could provide one such example, Ottolenghi replied, “Yes, sir. 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 2013 to 25 years in prison for his involvement in the foiled Iranian plot assassinate then-Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir by bombing a restaurant Al-Jubeir frequented in Washington, D.C.

Bloomberg View’s Josh Rogin reported on Wednesday that based on a policy memo he had obtained, the State Department has been “pressing to exempt all dual-nationality Iranians who are outside of Iran, in the hope of encouraging political change inside that country.”

Congress worked with the Obama administration in December to enact changes to the existing Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of 38 nations, mostly European, to travel to the U.S. without a visa. The result was the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 that was signed by President Barack Obama into law on December 18. The changes to the program prevent those who also hold citizenship of a state sponsor of terrorism, including Iran, from traveling to the U.S. without a visa, and require a visa for anyone who has traveled to those countries since March 1, 2011.

After the bill was signed into law, Iran criticized the U.S., claiming that the new rules were in violation of the nuclear deal signed last July. In response, Secretary of State John Kerry sent a letter to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif promising to provide waivers so as to not “interfere with legitimate business interests in Iran.” On January 21, 2016, the Obama administration acknowledged that it would provide waivers to the law and is considering eight categories of people to exempt, including those traveling for “legitimate business.” Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee Michael McCaul (R-Texas) stated, “Let me be clear: nowhere does the law include this authority. In fact, Congress explicitly rejected the waivers requested by the White House.” The two exemptions provided in the original legislation are for national security and law enforcement purposes.

Members of Congress have blasted the Obama administration’s attempts to circumvent the law. Chairman McCaul told Rogin, “The president has decided he is going to break this law — and he plans to do so, in part, to accommodate the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, Iran. I believe this decision could have serious consequences for our security and — perhaps more importantly — far-reaching consequences for our democracy.”

[Photo: oversightandreform / Youtube ]