The Obama administration's plan to loosen tough new visa requirements for businessmen and journalists who travel to Iran has touched off strong resistance in Congress.
At a hearing of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee on February 10, lawmakers voiced particular concern over exempting from the new visa clampdown some travelers who conduct business in Iran -- an area the administration had sought to liberalize now that economic sanctions against Tehran have been lifted under last year's nuclear deal.
"Nowhere does the law include this authority. In fact, Congress explicitly rejected the waivers requested by the White House," Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (Republican-Texas) said.
He accused the administration of bending the law, passed at the end of last year, to the point of breaking because Tehran objected to the rules and charged that they violated the nuclear accord.
"It seems to me that in our effort to...appease Iran, the State Department made a call overriding, basically breaking the law that we passed," McCaul said.
Also skeptical was the committee's top Democrat, Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who said he had "questions about how the [Department of Homeland Security] would go about determining the legitimacy of the business-related purposes."
Administration officials said their goal in crafting waivers to the rules is to shield journalists, humanitarian aid workers, and employees of other international organizations, as well as business people helping economic reconstruction efforts in Iran and Iraq.
They added that they would not grant "blanket" waivers to whole categories of people like Iranian businessmen, but will apply the exemptions case by case.
The law's new visa requirements were spurred by the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, where several of the Islamic State attackers who killed 130 people had European passports that would have entitled them to visa-free access to the United States.
The new rules require citizens of Europe and other mostly Western nations who previously were able to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa to now obtain one if they have visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria since March 1, 2011.
Those four countries were deemed to be breeding grounds for terrorists. Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during the hearing that he now wants to add Libya to the list.
To get a waiver from the rules, administration officials said Individuals must qualify for the U.S. visa-waiver program, which requires people to pass background checks.
Administration officials expressed concern that if the United States fails to loosen some of the new restrictions, foreign governments might cut back on information sharing, or impose awkward new visa requirements on Americans who travel to their countries frequently.
With reporting by Reuters and The Hill
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