Iranian Americans bank on historic nuclear deal

Facing sanctions and stigma, Iranian Americans are pushing for the nuclear deal to survive Congress’ September vote.

Iran nukes
Iranians in the US have faced discrimination and financial restrictions, but many see better times ahead [EPA]

New York, United States – For Mahmoud Reza Banki, an Iranian-American businessman, the fruits of a nuclear deal between Tehran, Washington and others could not come soon enough.

Banki spent 22 months behind bars for carrying out what he thought was a routine money transfer from his family in Iran to his US bank. He blames hot-headed prosecutors and US sanctions that were imposed on Iran amid decades of enmity between the two countries.

“I was caught in the crosshairs of international politics that had nothing to do with me,” said Banki, 39, a former McKinsey & Co consultant who eventually saw his most serious convictions quashed by an appeals court.

“I was nowhere close to being a decision-maker in those policies, yet they impacted my life in the most severe way,” Banki said.

Second class citizens?

About one million Iranian Americans live in the United States. More than 80 percent have close family in Iran, according to a Zogby Research Services poll  from May.


Many complain of red tape, shuttered bank accounts, threats of prosecution, travel dangers and hassles when visiting Iran.

Some 43 percent say they have faced discrimination in the US. In an extreme example from 2012, overeager Apple store staff mistakenly barred Iranian-American shoppers from buying iPads and iPhones.

“There are restrictions on Iranian Americans that make them akin to second class citizens,” Banki told Al Jazeera.

They are watching whether the US Congress will accept the deal struck last month between Iran, the US and five other world powers that would impose new curbs on Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

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Next month, politicians will vote on a “resolution of disapproval” brought by US Republicans to nix the pact. Two-thirds of Iranian Americans support the deal. Many also want Washington to ease the US’  unilateral trade embargo and make everyday life easier for them. 

“The community here is exhausted with US-Iran tensions these past 36 years and all the complications it has created for their lives,” Hadi Ghaemi, an Iranian American who runs the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told Al Jazeera.

“They want a normalisation of relations; they see this deal as an opportunity to move in that direction.”

Moving money

Washington’s trade embargo began in 1995 and prohibits US citizens from supplying goods, services or technology to Iran or its government. Family remittances are exempt, but even these are difficult because direct US-Iran bank transfers are impossible.

Banki was arrested after relatives moved $3.4m to his US bank account.

Likewise, many Iranian Americans struggle to settle the estates of deceased parents in Iran; and students at US colleges have a hard time getting money from back home to pay tuition fees.

Without regular banks, they often turn to hawala, a traditional and honour-based banking network in the Middle East. Transactions are usually above board, but the system is prey to money-launderers and funders of terrorism. 

“It’s a desperate situation where people are trying to get money out of Iran to the US with limited channels in which to do so. It’s a perfect storm,” Erich Ferrari, sanctions expert with Ferrari & Associates, told Al Jazeera. 

The historic nuclear deal signed last month focuses on global sanctions and does not significantly alter the US’ unilateral embargo – but it does offer a glimmer of hope for Iranian Americans who need to transfer money.

The deal will eventually lift some global restrictions on dealing with several major Iranian banks, opening ways for European or Gulf banks to act as intermediaries for cash transfers between relatives in the US and Iran.

“It won’t happen on day one but down the road we should see greater ability for people to divest from Iran,” Ferrari added.

Consular support

Moving money is not the only issue. Even if the deal is rolled out, much of the US’ trade embargo will hold firm.

Iranian Americans, together with all US citizens, will remain barred from trading or investing in Iran, a US treasury department spokesman told Al Jazeera.

For me, the most important part of the phrase 'Iranian American' is 'American'.

by Reza Banki, Iranian-American businessman

There will be some new exemptions, including exports of airline parts that are much needed to repair Iran’s rickety fleet. Almost 40 percent of Iranian Americans visit Iran at least every three years.

“When Iranian Americans travel to Iran, they won’t have to worry that their life is in danger because of the very unsafe planes,” Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council, told Al Jazeera. 

But when they reach the Islamic Republic, they will still lack a local US embassy for backup. The Swiss embassy in Tehran houses staff who help Americans in Iran, but the US state department describes its services as “limited” .

Morad Ghorban, a spokesman for the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, called for the opening of a low-level US consular hub in Tehran.

“If an Iranian American loses their passport or security card, they don’t have any outpost to go to,” Ghorban told Al Jazeera.

US President Barack Obama has not ruled out opening a US embassy in Tehran, but it is not a priority. “I never say never, but I think these things have to go in steps,” he told a US radio station late last year.

New Persian rugs

One section of the nuclear deal has got Omri Schwartz excited.

The manager of Nazmiyal Collection, a New York Persian rug emporium, noted that Iran persuaded the US to allow imports of “Iranian-origin carpets” under the nuclear deal after years in which the items have been contraband.  

“I think we’re going to see a rush and an influx of inventory coming into the US, where people will be able to buy them again. As far as new rugs are concerned, we might see a drop in price,” Schwartz told Al Jazeera. 

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Many Iranian Americans hope the deal will be implemented and will kick-start a rapprochement between two countries that have derided each other as the “Great Satan” and a member of an “Axis of Evil” since Iran’s religious revolution of 1979.

Ghorban is upbeat about the deal and improved US-Iran relations.

  Iran nuclear deal: How both sides are telling the story 

“It will create opportunities for more people-to-people exchanges between the US and Iran. Ultimately, Iran’s gradual opening up will see the US change from being an enemy to a source of inspiration. Once that happens, sanctions will be irrelevant,” he told Al Jazeera.

He is not alone. This month, a group of Iranian-American luminaries and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs voiced support for the deal , saying it could help people from the two countries “connect” and “create a brighter future”.

Their letter was signed by investors and key players in such technology firms as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It was published in The New York Times, as Europeans and Asians visited Iran to scope out opportunities for post-deal trade.

But the deal still has plenty of critics in the US and has yet to make it through Congress. Even if it succeeds and allays fears over Iran’s nuclear programme, some analysts doubt a wider US-Iran detente will happen. 

In any case, it would come too late for Banki, who still struggles to get a job three years after his conviction was overturned.

“I hope at some point Iranian Americans are treated like every other American,” Banki said. 

“For me, the most important part of the phrase ‘Iranian American’ is ‘American’. We are a small part of the immigrant movement that has helped make America great.”  

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera