Iran sees Israeli lobby behind U.S. visa waiver changes

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gestures as he attends a joint news conference with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier (not seen) in Tehran October 17, 2015. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA

By Sam Wilkin DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran said on Monday that Israeli lobbying was behind a new measure passed by the U.S. Congress that will prevent visa-free travel to the United States for people who have visited Iran or hold Iranian nationality. The measure, which President Barack Obama signed into law on Friday, also applies to Iraq, Syria and Sudan, and was introduced as a security measure after the Islamic State attacks in Paris and a similar attack in San Bernardino, California. Iran, a Shi'ite Muslim theocracy staunchly opposed to Sunni radicalism espoused by groups like Islamic State, says its inclusion on the list is intended to undermine a deal on its nuclear programme that Tehran reached with world powers, including the United States, in July, known as the JCPOA. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari said in a televised news conference that the U.S. measure had been passed "under pressure from the Zionist lobby and currents opposed to the JCPOA". Citizens of 38 countries, most of them in Europe, are eligible for waivers under the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. Under the new restrictions, citizens who have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan in the last five years, and those who hold dual nationality with one of those countries, are excluded. The measure was introduced after 130 people were killed in the Islamic State attacks in Paris on Nov. 13. Several of the attackers had European passports, and some had traveled to Islamic State's territory in Syria. IRAN SAYS DECISION "ABSURD" Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Friday said it was "absurd" that Tehran should be included on the list. "No Iranian nor anybody who visited Iran had anything to do with the tragedies that have taken place in Paris or in San Bernardino or anywhere else," he said in an interview with Middle East-focused website Al Monitor. Asked whether Iran's inclusion in the visa law was a backdoor attempt to undermine the nuclear deal, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington that the restrictions applied because Tehran was on the department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. There is no intention to use the visa program "to halt the legitimate business interests of Iran post-implementation" of the nuclear deal, Kirby told reporters at a news briefing. Iran has been promised a lifting of international sanctions hobbling its economy once it has restrictions on its nuclear programme in place as stipulated by its deal with the powers. Iranian officials have said the visa measure will adversely affect bilateral relations. Some suggest the measure is effectively a new sanction against the Islamic Republic that could jeopardise the nuclear deal. "Existing sanctions not yet lifted, additional sanctions imposed," ran the front-page headline of the hardline daily Kayhan on Monday. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrote to Zarif on Saturday to assure him that Washington remained committed to the JCPOA, noting that the White House can waive the new requirements in individual cases. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's National Security Council, warned that the measures would breed mistrust between the two countries. "It could have irreversible effects on the implementation of mutual commitments under the JCPOA," Shamkhani was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA. (Reporting by Sam Wilkin in Dubai and Washington Newsroom; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Mark Heinrich)