US citizens of Iranian origins are getting ensnared by US sanctions on Tehran. Image: Facebook

RASHT – As US President Donald Trump’s administration tightens incremental sanctions on Iran to impair the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, derail its regional escapades and bring it back to the bargaining table, citizens of Iranian origin living overseas including expatriates and international students are collaterally feeling the sting of the punitive measures against their country of birth.

The US sanctions regime against Iran is now a multi-layered, sophisticated constellation of embargoes expanded over time through numerous Congressional acts and executive orders by the US president. It targets any sort of trade and banking transaction with the beleaguered nation and extraterritoriality applies to all countries and foreign firms that have business interests in Iran.

Although the US sanctions, introduced after President Trump’s trashing of the July 2015 nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) do not have the backing of the UN Security Council, virtually every world country, from Iran’s traditional oil clients in Asia such as India, South Korea and Japan, to neighboring Turkey are upholding them for fear of being caught and penalized by America.

Indications are emerging that instead of applying pressure on the government, the sanctions are incapacitating the daily lives of ordinary Iranian citizens, even those who have left the country years ago and adopted other nationalities. In extreme cases, people have been penalized on account of their surnames that hint of Iranian origins and prevented from purchasing goods online or making money remittances.

An Iranian woman wearing a mask walks past a mural displaying Iran’s national flag in Tehran, March 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

Lila, a music producer from Uruguay using the artistic name Tirandoa Violeta, posted a tweet in late August notifying her followers that the US-based online payment system PayPal had declined one of her transactions. After making an inquiry, she realized the word “iran” in her name (Tirandoa) had triggered a false alarm in the system, causing the rejection of the transaction. 

The customer service officer had recommended to her to try the transaction again with a different name. Her tweet was picked by Iranian users of social media and quickly went viral, prompting frustration over what many said was a racist and discriminatory restriction on behalf of PayPal. 

On September 2, she wrote on her timeline that the issue was resolved, and deleted her previous thread complaining of PayPal’s intransigence.

In a different incident involving an Iranian expat, Svenska Handelsbanken AB, a Swedish bank headquartered in Stockholm froze a transaction pertaining to Dr. Katrin Rabiei Tabriz, a renowned Iranian neurosurgeon in Sweden, after flagging the word “Tabriz” in her name. Tabriz is the name of a large city in northwestern Iran.

Dr Rabiei called the Swedish bank’s action “systematic racism.”

She was first transferring some money from her bank account in the Netherlands to her account in Sweden nine months ago, when the transactions failed for unknown reasons. 

After following up the matter for three weeks and exchanging several emails with the bank’s branch in Sweden, the money was returned to the Dutch bank and no explanation was offered by the Swedish institution. But it was not a one-off mishap.

“This time when it happened, the Dutch bank wanted to show us they were not involved in this and sent us the original message by Handelsbanken Sweden stating, ‘what’s Tabriz? A city in Iran?’” Rabiei told Asia Times.

“According to a high bank officer we have spoken to, banks in Sweden have no rights whatsoever to do this. To stop a transaction, they must have real evidence of a crime and contact the authorities. They cannot just stop a transaction. But they have done so twice in a year for us,” she added.

The 41-year-old doctor has faced discrimination on multiple other occasions owing to her Iranian heritage.

In 2016, she lost her entitlement, as a Swedish citizen, to travel to the United States without a visa. This came after the Congress and Obama administration crafted new legislation through amendments to the Visa Waiver Program, prohibiting the citizens of 38 countries who were previously permitted to visit the United States without a visa, from availing themselves of the advantage if they had been to Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan in the past five years or are dual citizens of these countries. 

Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed by a US Reaper drone weapon near Baghdad airport in early January. Credit: File photo.

The New York Times reported earlier this year that following the US killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani on January 3 and heightened tensions between Iran and the US, nearly 60 Iranians and Iranian-Americans were held for additional questioning about their political views and affiliations at Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Washington while returning from vacations in Canada. Many of them were kept in a waiting room for interrogation sessions as long as 10 hours.

Responding to an Iranian-American family who demanded answers on why they were being kept, a US officer had told them, “this is a bad time to be an Iranian.”

Hooman Majd, a veteran Iranian-American journalist and author in New York told Asia Times the costs of living as an Iranian have soared due to the draconian US sanctions: “people of Iranian heritage, and especially those with Iran as their birthplace, are paying the price for connection to a sanctioned country.”

Majd doesn’t foresee any betterment unless Iran and the US diffuse tensions: “As long as Iran remains in conflict with the US, I don’t know that there will be any real change. Under Trump and the maximum pressure campaign, along with rhetoric from both sides, things have gotten worse.”

“There has to be a concerted effort, whether with Trump in office or Biden as president, for there to be at least entente, if not detente, with Iran in order for things to improve on this front,” he added.

In February, Shirin Fahimi, a Toronto-based Iranian-Canadian visual artist was denied entry to the US prior to boarding a flight to San Francisco after she was stopped by the US border officials stationed in Toronto.

They took him to a security room and asked her a litany of questions, including whether she was a Muslim, the reasons she immigrated to Canada, if she approved of the Iranian government and why her husband’s surname was so lengthy.

Fahimi, possessing a Canadian passport, was slated to perform at San Francisco’s CounterPulse theater.

CNN obtained an internal Customs and Border Protection memo in late January revealing that US border officers based at Canadian ports of entry were instructed to arrest and interrogate passengers of Iranian descent, including Iranian-Americans, in the aftermath of the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, which had raised fears of a major new escalation between the US and Iran.

The document, issued by the Tactical Analytical Unit of CBP’s Seattle Field Office, also directed immigration officers to meticulously scrutinize sympathizers of the Iranian government, Palestinian and Lebanese nationals and any individual suspected of harboring “extremist ideology or links to terrorism.”

A Canadian of Iranian descent talks about her hours-long delay returning to the US from Canada with her family days earlier, at a news conference earlier this year. Photo: Facebook

Members of Iranian diaspora, particularly more than 467,000 people of Iranian descent living in the US, are concerned about being gripped by “Iranophobia” impinging on their lives.

The trend is being driven by a combination of US sanctions against Iran, unfriendly media coverage of the entire community of Iranians and arbitrary decisions by over-zealous officials across the world trying to appease the US by showing excessive compliance with the sanctions regime.

Yet Iranians in high-income, Western countries are typically among the most successful minority communities. Even President Donald Trump admitted in a 2017 Iranian New Year Nowruz message that Iranian-Americans are “one of the most successful immigrant groups in our country’s contemporary history.”