Obama Admin Blocked Visa Waiver Reforms to Avoid Upsetting Iran

Senators blast administration capitulation to Iran as dangerous to U.S. security

John Kerry
John Kerry / AP
January 14, 2016

Recent congressional efforts to tighten gaps in the U.S. visa waiver program were blocked by the Obama administration out of fear the counter-terror effort would upset Iran, which opposes the reform to the visa process, according to a letter sent by a delegation of leading senators to Secretary of State John Kerry.

Congress approved late last year a measure to tighten restrictions on those entering the United States via the visa waiver program, which facilitates travel between America and many European countries.

The law prohibits travel to the United States for any foreign individual who has since 2011 visited Iraq, Iran, or any other country designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. The Obama administration threatened to waive the provision after Iran publicly opposed the measure and warned that it violates the nuclear agreement with Iran.

In a December letter to top Iranian leaders, Kerry promised the administration would veto the measure and work to uphold the nuclear agreement.

"The administration has the authority to waive" the counter-terrorism measures and will take steps to ensure the measures do not "interfere with legitimate business interests of Iran," Kerry wrote to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Stephen Mull, the State Department official in charge of implementing the Iran deal, warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that congressional efforts to tighten restrictions "could have a very negative impact on the deal."

The Obama administration’s threat to veto the new counter-terror law sparked outrage among Republican lawmakers who accuse Kerry and his team of jeopardizing U.S. national security to appease one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terror.

"Iran-sponsored terrorists and militants are responsible for the death of more than 700 Americans," Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) and 12 other senators wrote to Kerry on Wednesday. "As you continue to engage with Mr. Zarif, we urge—rather than seeking to placate the complaints of Iran, the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism—you to press him and his government to cease its support for terrorism and provide tangible evidence that it is doing so."

The United States must make clear to Iran "that these reforms to the [visa waiver program] were not drafted with Iranian interests in mind, but U.S. national security interests," the senators wrote.

Other lawmakers who backed the letter include Sens. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.), and James Inhofe (R., Okla.).

The lawmakers expressed "grave concern" over Kerry’s effort to reassure Zarif and Iran.

While Iran maintains that the new counter-terror measure would harm its international business interests, the lawmakers affirmed that the Islamic Republic could exploit flaws in the U.S. screening process as part of its ongoing sponsor of terror operations.

"Iran-sponsored terrorists and militants are responsible for the death of more than 700 Americans," the lawmakers wrote. "During the 1980s, Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorists killed over 290 Americans in Lebanon—including 241 U.S. servicemen in the Beirut Barracks Bombing of October 23, 1983."

Iranian-sponsored attacks have "killed hundreds of Americans" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last year that the Iran is responsible for the deaths of at least 500 "soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines" in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The State Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the letter.

Update 5:40 p.m.: Following publication of this article, a State Department official told the Free Beacon, "We have received the letter and will respond appropriately."