Last week, the Treasury Department accused the Iranian government of aiding Al Qaeda and blacklisted six Qaeda operatives for funneling money through Iran. Although Treasury’s announcement, coupled with existing sanctions, has put some pressure on Tehran, much more can be done. Indeed, the White House should take action in its own backyard.
In February, the Obama administration embarked on a real estate project that directly impacts Iran’s interests in the United States. The State Department began refurbishing Iran’s Washington embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, 31 years after the last Iranian diplomat set foot in it. While the government has thus far respected and protected Iran’s property rights and permitted Iranian officials an unparalleled level of freedom, Washington should now seize outright all Iranian assets in the United States and bar as many Iranian officials as possible from our soil.
Tehran remains the legal owner of several buildings in Washington, although the United States government has taken them over. The State Department has become the legal guardian of the embassy and three residences, renting them out and using the proceeds to maintain them.
In November 1979, Iranians took over the American Embassy in Tehran, leading to a 444-day hostage crisis. For decades, the building has served as a school for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a group Washington labels a terrorist organization, and to this day, Iran does not recognize Washington as the property’s legal owner.
Likewise, the contrast between the freedom of movement Iranian officials enjoy in the United States and the restrictions on American officials’ travel to Iran is stark. Iran has a diplomatic mission at the United Nations and a fully staffed interests section housed in the Pakistani embassy in Washington; Iranian officials come to Washington to attend International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings; and Iranian officials receive visas to attend engagements of prominent international organizations in the United States. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has come to New York several times during his presidency to attend United Nations meetings, from which he cannot be barred. And each time, American taxpayers have been left to foot the bill for his large security detail.
No American president has traveled to Tehran since 1977 and American government officials rarely travel there in an official capacity. If American officials were welcome in Tehran they would need significant security coverage and the Iranian government could not be counted on to provide or pay for it.
As the United States implements robust sanctions against Iran around the globe, we must also take action within our own borders. The government should seize all of Iran’s properties in the United States and rent the space to liberal Iranian opposition groups. This would send a clear signal to Iran’s government and its citizens that America supports reformers who seek a democratic future in Iran.
Under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the president can respond to an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to America’s economy, foreign policy or national security. The act also allows him to confiscate the property of any entity he deems to be engaged in hostilities against the United States, and to use those assets to serve American interests. Iran clearly meets this test. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran and its terrorist agents have had a policy of attacking American interests around the globe.
The United States has taken such actions before. In 2003, Washington confiscated valuable Iraqi government property and eventually put $1.7 billion toward the postwar reconstruction effort there. More recently, the Obama administration seized Libyan assets held at American banks and is seeking a way to send that money to Libyan rebels.
American policy makers must make it clear that the United States is serious about forcing Iran to change its behavior. Tehran has yet to develop a nuclear weapon, but sanctions have only delayed its efforts, not quashed its ambitions. Seizing Iran’s assets and barring its officials from the United States would send a strong message that Washington aims to stop Iran’s nuclear program by any peaceful means necessary.
By Avi Jorisch, a former Treasury Department official and the author of Tainted Money: Are We Losing the War on Money Laundering and Terrorism Finance?