Republicans, Administration Spar on Visa Travel for Iran

December 23, 2015 Updated: December 23, 2015
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WASHINGTON—Top GOP lawmakers accused the Obama administration Wednesday, Dec. 23, of ignoring congressional intent and the spirit of the law in offering reassurances to Iran about new visa rules.

“There is no ambiguity,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. “The administration should follow the law as written and agreed to.”

At issue is a new law tightening visa-free travel to the United States, enacted as part of a sprawling spending bill passed overwhelmingly by Congress last week and signed by President Barack Obama.

The legislation, a response to the Paris terror attacks, deals with the “visa waiver” program that allows the citizens of 38 countries to travel to the United States without obtaining a visa. It makes a series of changes, including requiring a visa for anyone who’s visited Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan in the previous five years, as well as dual nationals with citizenship in any of those countries.

This could make travel back and forth to the United States more difficult for Iranian-Americans or for Europeans with business dealings in Iran.

Iranian leaders complained in recent days that the new requirements contradict elements of the landmark nuclear deal reached earlier this year with Iran, the United States, and five world powers, under which Iran must curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. The agreement also committed the signing nations to refrain from policies adversely affecting normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.

In response, Secretary of State John Kerry offered assurances in a letter to his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif that the new rules would not impact legitimate Iranian business interests and suggested they could be waived.

That has led to criticism from top House Republicans who say they contemplated no such waiver. The law includes waivers for military and official government travel, but not for business travel. Republican aides say the Homeland Security Department initially sought a business exception but lawmakers rebuffed the request.

In a letter to Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson released Wednesday, McCarthy and several House committee chairmen said they are “deeply concerned” the administration would try to apply waiver authority to those who’ve traveled to Iran for business purposes. “This letter serves to dispel any notion that the congressional intent would allow the waiver authority to be used for business travels,” they wrote.

Questioned on the issue this week, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau declined to say whether the administration would indeed seek to waive elements of the law in response to the Iranian concerns. “It’s too early to say if or when that authority will be used, but we will say it is included in the legislation,” she said.