• 8 August 2013
  • Posted By Caroline Cohn
  • discrimination, Sanctions

When Iranian Americans started reaching out to us a few weeks ago asking why websites like Kayak and Priceline were no longer allowing users to book flights to Iran, NIAC contacted the top executives of seven online travel agencies currently engaging in the practice to attempt to fix the problem. We told these companies – Orbitz, Priceline, Expedia, Tripadvisor, Cheaptickets, Hotwire, and Kayak – that, while sanctions are broad and confusing, they do not prohibit travel or the booking of travel to Iran. Since then, we’ve been contacted by Orbitz’s VP for Corporate Affairs who told us that the reason they block these sales is indeed sanctions. Or rather, the over-enforcement of sanctions that are so broad and ambiguous, private companies have been scared out of doing any business related to Iran even if it means booking flights for Iranian Americans to visit family.

Travel hurdles and restrictions aren’t a foreign concept in the U.S. You can’t simply book a flight to Cuba, either. In fact, all travel to Cuba by Americans traveling as individuals is expressly prohibited. Though, as of 2012, you can go to Cuba in a group – so long as you travel with an organization that has an official license from the U.S. State Department. In any case, given the stringent travel restrictions on Cuba, it makes sense that if you search for a flight to Havana on Tripadvisor, your attempt fails and the same error message – “we cannot complete your request…” – appears.

In the case of Iran, however, U.S. federal regulations explicitly do not restrict travel, and they certainly do not prohibit online travel agencies from facilitating Iran-related travel. And yet, as is the case with most other goods and services that are technically exempted from the sanctions, it appears that many companies are simply unaware of or unwilling to take advantage.

But what about North Korea, the country threatening war with the U.S. and our allies, and with a much more extensive nuclear war capability than Iran? Interestingly, we noticed yesterday that you actually can book flight tickets to Pyongyang, North Korea, through one of the websites, Kayak.com. Type in “Pyongyang” as your destination on Kayak, and you can find flights with no problem; although, some of the other online travel sites won’t process your request.

So why can’t you book flights to Iran? De jure technicalities aside, the de facto consequences of broad sanctions on Iran is clear. The Iran sanctions are the harshest sanctions regime ever imposed on a country during peacetime, according to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Many businesses, like many of these online travel agencies, have been convinced that zero association with Iran is a better business decision than the potential costs associated with any sort of business association. This has actually been the unofficial U.S. policy with regard to Iran sanctions for some time, to convince private actors that any business involving Iran, even if it’s perfectly legal, is simply not worth the risk. And this has also been the mission of organizations like United Against Nuclear Iran who name and shame any company doing any business with Iran, even if its legitimate.
The cost-benefit analysis imposed on private companies by sanctions goes something like this: the significant time and expense involved in compiling records about our business activities related to Iran, which we’re required by the SEC to report + the wrath of the U.S. government if we’re discovered to have missed or violated any of their far-reaching sanctions, is not outweighed by the fraction of the market we retain if we continue to conduct any sort of business related to Iran.

It’s unclear whether the human costs associated with the wide-reaching de facto ban on Iran-related business is being factored into executives’ cost-benefit calculations, or has ever been brought to their attention. (Although, NIAC did take one step in bringing these costs to their attention, via our letters to the top executives of these flight-booking companies.) These costs include the obstacles imposed on Iranian Americans attempting to visit friends and family in Iran.

Much more concerning, however, have been the repercussions of banks’ refusals to conduct medicine and other humanitarian sales with Iran. Though these items, too, are technically exempted from sanctions, the de facto consequence has been massive medicine shortages in Iran; and the human cost has been deadly.

An article in Sanction Law, an online resource and blog about U.S. sanctions, writes that oftentimes, “U.S. sanctions on Iran can have myriad unintended consequences.” This is particularly the case when sanctions legislation is broadly written, rather than targeted to affect solely the Iranian government or persons with decision-making power. Unfortunately, the bulk of these “myriad unintended consequences” are negative, and the majority of their victims are ordinary Iranian and Iranian-American citizens.

Posted By Caroline Cohn

    2 Responses to “Want to book a flight to Iran on Kayak? Sorry. But North Korea’s nice this time of year.”

  1. Paul Fogarty says:

    Excellent article…and I follow the reasoning these travel agencies are using. But these sympathetic arguments are never an excuse for organizations like NIAC to back off and acquiesce to excessively harsh sanctions by way of logic. Pressure needs to be maintained on the private sector in order to “push back” on the effects of sanctions at all times, lest we find ourselves having to contend with even more.

    Further, I take issue with one of the three facets of the suggested cost benefit analysis:

    “the wrath of the U.S. government if we’re discovered to have missed or violated any of their far-reaching sanctions”

    This is simply not a reality. As intimidating as sanctions may be to the private sector, harsh prosecutions have not been a reality as of yet, so this fear is simply based on a hypothetical scenario. Reality has to balance the perpetual “fear of the Middle East”. This fear, which is promulgated daily through the media and which is fueling sanctions in the first place, is something NIAC has to continually counterbalance to the best of its ability–particularly when it is based on hypotheticals.

  2. Jamal Abdi says:

    Hi Paul – thanks for your comments. Just to clarify – the explanation of the reasoning by private companies here isn’t to excuse them from over-enforcing sanctions. But we also don’t want to excuse government from imposing broad and ambiguous sanctions. The issue has to be addressed from both sides and we’ll continue to press on both sides.

    Also, with regard to “intimidation” effect of sanctions–this is definitely not hypothetical. There have been *enormous* penalties assessed (see: HSBC, Deutsch Bank, etc) and numerous prosecutions (often of Iranian Americans). Not to mention the reputational cost when companies are mandated by sanctions to publicly disclose Iran dealings to SEC and when organizations like UANI attack companies doing Iran related business. This doesn’t excuse any behavior, but it does show the breadth of the sanctions and the massive chilling effect they’ve created in large part by design.

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Sign the Petition


7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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