US Embassy: Sanctions The Exceptions

The Americans and Iranians had each other in headlocks as commuters filed in and out of New York’s largest train station. Under Grand Central Terminal’s golden chandeliers and constellations of stars painted on the ceiling, the wrestlers threw each other, grunting as crowds in the bleachers roared encouragement in Persian and English. Emcee Noel Thompson, gazing from behind his dark aviator sunglasses, announced each brawny contestant, an American flag–themed bow tie standing out against his tuxedo.

“It was so much bigger than just a match,” said Thompson, who flew from New York to Tehran to personally invite Iran’s top wrestlers to compete on American soil. That Wednesday in May 2013, athletes from two countries that have had no diplomatic relations since 1979 found common ground on thick rubber mats.

They were there with the common goal to defend wrestling, which the International Olympic Committee board recommended dropping as a core sport — despite its ancient origins stemming back to Greece’s earliest games. They also welcomed the chance to raise money for Beat the Streets, an organization that helps inner-city kids through the outlet of wrestling.

But “Rumble on the Rails” could never have happened without the consent of both governments — no easy feat in the midst of an interlocking matrix of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

“The goal of sanctions is both to impose costs for bad behavior and to use economic leverage to try to change behavior,” said John Hughes, acting deputy director of the Office of Sanctions Policy and Implementation at the U.S. Department of State. Though sanctions are a tool that can target an individual, business, economic sector or government, they also run the risk of harming innocent people. As a result, the U.S. works hard to impose “smart” sanctions targeting those engaging in the bad behavior, rather than a country as a whole. “We never want to affect the lives of ordinary people; we don’t want to unduly hurt them,” Hughes said.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the Department of Commerce authorize licenses to companies or individuals to engage in a prohibited activity, often based on guidance from the Department of State. Licenses further reduce any toll sanctions might take on citizens. In 2013, there were thousands of applications for licenses, and the varying requests included permission to distribute medicine, to sell aviation parts or to study wildlife. An OFAC license allowed Beat the Streets, in conjunction with USA Wrestling, to orchestrate the wrestling competition.

A little bit of sweat and lactic acid has eased tensions between nations in the past. In 1971, U.S. table tennis players were among the first Americans to set foot in Beijing since the Communist Revolution. Premier Zhou Enlai told them, “You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people.” The same day, the U.S. announced plans to remove its 20-year embargo on trade with China.

Athletic and cultural licenses offer Americans a window into other cultures and often mark the beginning of lifelong connections. More than half a million Americans have visited Cuba each year since 2009, despite decades of embargo.

New York choreographer Pedro Ruiz traveled there in 2011 and made history as the first Cuban American to create a dance for a Cuban company. On his first day at the studio of the renowned Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, he cried. His dance Horizons premiered in Havana to a standing ovation, then traveled to New York, Philadelphia and Boston, where it sold out shows in each city. Audiences were mesmerized by the way the Cuban performers blended modern American dance with classical European ballet, Afro-Caribbean dance, break dancing and boxing.

“I have found that every place I’ve gone, there is always a way that you can connect to the best part of people,” said Michael Eizenberg, president of the Educational Travel Alliance. He has brought thousands of authorized American baseball players, singers and dancers to Cuba through athletic and cultural exchanges.

Eizenberg has an archive of powerful memories. He can recall 120 women of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, ranging from ages 20 to 80, singing in Havana’s Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís — the stained glass windows, the shadows on the walls and the astonishing silence when the voices ceased. The slender Danza Contemporánea dancers in awe of the potato chip and soda selection in American grocery stores. The Cuban baseball players who appeared to have been devoured by mosquitoes on their visit to the U.S. “I asked them about it, and they said, ‘We’re pinching ourselves because we can’t believe we’re here,’” said Eizenberg.

Underscoring each experience is his conviction that neither American nor Cuban is a tourist. “Cuba’s background is like ours; every ethnic group imaginable is there. We are all children of people who came to this hemisphere looking for a better life.”

Exceptions to the sanctions, of all kinds, are designed to improve the lives of citizens. OFAC has issued general licenses to increase access to education while sanctions deprive the Syrian regime of resources. Under General License Number 11A, medical doctor Mahmud Angrini, who lost his house and his lab before the uprisings began in 2011, has been able to enroll in free courses from top universities offered online through Coursera.

“Someday, the war will end, and we will come back to our homes and our former lives to contribute to the reconstruction process in our country. To do so, we need to learn new skills,” said Angrini in a blog post. As the civil war has raged on, he has taken 25 classes.

Could a wrestling match, a dance or online courses thaw relations between countries? Not necessarily, but people’s common interests and goals can transcend politics.

At the train station, before the referee blew the start whistle, the eyes of the Iranian wrestlers met those of their American counterparts. Each had run at sunrise, trained and stuck to a strict diet to be good enough to compete that day.

Iranian, American, Muslim, Christian — it didn’t matter. They were all just wrestlers. Together, they raised $1.4 million for urban children and helped preserve wrestling’s place in the Olympic Games.

Iran beat the U.S. 6–1. But nobody felt like they lost.


The Essentials

When the United States imposes sanctions against countries, it often calibrates them to a specific sector or individual to minimize any harmful effects on civilian life. Licenses help ease the pain — the most essential include pharmaceuticals, medicine and natural disaster relief. For example, to help victims of earthquakes in Iran in 1997, 2002 and 2003, the U.S. donated more than $6 million.

In South Sudan, where the U.S. government has imposed financial sanctions against two individuals on opposite sides of the conflict, it provides humanitarian assistance that will exceed $434 million in 2014. The assistance helps meet immediate food needs, including nutritional supplements for children, and addresses chronic food shortages by providing tools and training for farmers.

In today’s tech world, OFAC issues licenses to spur the free flow of information. Some licenses allow American companies to offer laptops, smartphones, tablets and other Internet software in Iran, resulting in both Google and Apple unblocking their app stores inside the country. Similarly, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security issues licenses for the export of items such as mobile phones for use by the Syrian and Cuban people.


Getting a License

U.S. companies and individuals are able to apply to the departments of Commerce and Treasury for a license to export goods or engage in an activity that would otherwise be sanctionable. The U.S. also issues general licenses in some cases to allow a broad category of activity to occur, such as the sale of food and medicine in a country. Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and the response takes into account how the proposed activity fits in with U.S. foreign policy goals.