The Bush administration yesterday temporarily eased restrictions on doing business with Iran, rules that had prohibited Iranian Americans and others from donating to a large-scale earthquake relief effort.
The decision to allow a three-month waiver of sanctions comes after pressure from aid groups and Iranian Americans eager to help the victims in Bam. Friday's earthquake killed at least 30,000 people, injured thousands more and leveled hundreds of buildings.
Five days after an earthquake ravaged the city of Bam in Iraq, a family mourns at the burial of 17 of its members. At least 30,000 people are dead.
(Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
"It's an important step, an important statement that humanitarian concerns precede other political or bureaucratic concerns," said Dokhi Fassihian, executive director of the District-based National Iranian American Council, an organization that encourages Iranian American political involvement. It has raised nearly $70,000 to help victims.
Haleh Esfandiari of Potomac lost 40 relatives in the earthquake and wants to do what she can to help her family.
"Now we can help with building schools, hospitals, homes, all of the things that have been devastated," said Esfandiari, consulting director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in the District.
She credited a lobbying effort by the Iranian American community on elected leaders and the administration.
"Also, I think the administration saw how the Americans on the ground were welcomed by the local people in Bam," Esfandiari said. "That was also very important."
The U.S. Agency for International Development dispatched a seven-member disaster assistance response team, as well as 77 technical and medical specialists from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Two trailers of medical gear from the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team intended to help restore local health care also are on the ground in Iran.
The Americans swelled an international aid contingent that already numbered more than 1,100. As the first official U.S. delegation to set foot in Iran in more than a decade, the American physicians, engineers and relief experts were the object of considerable interest, representing a possible bridge between two governments that have not had diplomatic relations since 1979, when the sanctions were imposed.
Under the rules announced yesterday, U.S. companies and individuals can transfer funds to Iran through private relief organizations, according to the Treasury Department.
"The American government itself has responded to the earthquake, so it doesn't make much sense to maintain a ban on private groups doing the same thing," said Shaul Bakhash, a professor at George Mason University and expert on Iran.
Mohammad Farivar wanted to help feed and clothe the estimated 1,000 orphans the quake created.
But until yesterday, doing so was against U.S. law because of the sanctions. Dozens of aid groups -- including the American Red Cross -- had been on the sidelines since the earthquake -- waiting for waiver applications to be processed.
To some of the groups, the process was akin to applying to the DMV to get an ambulance.
"To raise money is very easy; to send it to Iran is impossible," said Farivar, a physician and professor at Harvard and Boston universities. His Earthquake Relief Funds for Orphans, a nonprofit organization, has helped 476 orphans in Iran since an earthquake struck that country in 1990. The group has more than $100,000 sitting in a bank, money that could help survivors of the Bam quake.
Iran's Interior Ministry estimated the death toll would reach 50,000. That would make the 6.3-magnitude quake the world's deadliest in more than a quarter-century.
At a time in which every hour is precious, the process to obtain a waiver to send funds to Iran had been bogged down in bureaucracy. Aid workers complained of filled voice mailboxes, contradictory instructions and differing interpretations of sanctions statutes.
Thomas Tighe, executive director of Direct Relief International, a California-based group that provides medicine and materiel for disasters, said he believes sending emergency medical aid to the Iranian Red Crescent would not have violated the rules.
But the group requested a waiver "just to be safe," Tighe said.
"All the [nongovernmental organizations] realize that sanctions do exist and want to comply," Tighe said. "But they don't want to stop what they're doing in the interim."