“Just out that the Obama Administration granted citizenship, during the terrible Iran Deal negotiation, to 2,500 Iranians - including to government officials. How big (and bad) is that?”
— President Donald Trump, in a tweet, July 3, 2018
This tweet packs a punch: Trump is suggesting that President Barack Obama’s administration sweetened the Iran nuclear deal by granting U.S. citizenship to 2,500 Iranians, including government officials.
Trump has long derided the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But this is a new line of criticism, coming nearly two months after Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the deal.
The 2015 agreement, negotiated by Obama’s administration and other world powers, restricts Iran’s ability to pursue nuclear weapons. In exchange, Iran got broad relief from international sanctions. For now, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia remain parties to the nuclear deal, along with Iran.
No part of the JCPOA grants U.S. citizenship or legal resident status to Iranians. So where is Trump getting this explosive information, and does it hold up?
Trump’s claim appears to have originated with Mojtaba Zonnour (also spelled Zolnour), a hard-line cleric and member of Iran’s parliament who has criticized the JCPOA and President Hassan Rouhani for striking the deal.
In June, Zonnour gave an interview to the Iranian newspaper Etemad, and his comments were then reported by Fars, a semiofficial news agency known for its ties to Iranian hard-liners.
“Zolnour announced: Obama gave citizenship to 2500 Iranians / Some officials had competed for the citizenship of their children,” according to Fars.
Zonnour claimed “the Obama administration granted citizenship to 2,500 Iranians, including family members of government officials, while negotiating the Iran nuclear deal” and “claimed it was done as a favor to senior Iranian officials linked to President Hassan Rouhani,” according to a Fox News report published July 2, the day before Trump’s tweet.
Zonnour further alleged that “the move sparked a competition among Iranian officials over whose children would benefit from the scheme,” Fox News reported.
Trump said the Obama administration granted citizenship to 2,500 Iranians during the JCPOA negotiations, including government officials, but Zonnour’s claim is somewhat different, as Fox News reported. First, it’s unclear whether he was referring to U.S. citizenship or lawful permanent resident status (green cards). Second, Zonnour’s claim was that Iranian government officials competed to secure U.S. citizenship or green cards for their children, not for themselves. Trump’s tweet glosses over those important nuances.
“There are a few Iranians within the ruling establishment who have or had U.S. citizenship or permanent residency, typically dating from the pre-revolutionary period,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution. “There are also Iranian officials whose children have found their way to U.S. universities and stayed in the U.S., or married dual nationals and obtained residency or citizenship that way.
“Given the long-standing estrangement between the U.S. and Iran, the allegation alone is used as a smear, to impugn the patriotism and question the motives of rival officials by essentially accusing them of hypocrisy and ideological opportunism. So it’s not surprising that a politician who is critical of the nuclear deal would use this line of attack, especially in the aftermath of President Trump’s dismantling of the deal, which has generated an intense backlash toward the proponents of the agreement.”
In short, it’s possible that Zonnour, a politician who opposes the Iran deal, was arguing that Rouhani gave away the store and was rewarded by Obama with an offer to give citizenship or green cards to the children of his supporters. After Trump announced the United States was leaving the JCPOA, Zonnour said Iran should resume high-level uranium enrichment unless Rouhani secures “necessary guarantees” from the remaining countries in the agreement, according to Iranian media.
Trump’s tweets are official statements, as the Justice Department has said in court. But the administration did not provide evidence to back up this claim. The White House did not respond to a request for comment. The Homeland Security and State departments didn’t answer our questions.
We asked Ben Rhodes, who was a key figure in the Iran deal negotiations and deputy national security adviser to Obama, whether it was accurate to claim that 2,500 Iranians were given U.S. citizenship or green cards during the JCPOA negotiations.
“I have never heard that figure before,” Rhodes said. “It is certainly the case that it was not part of the Iran deal.”
Two senior Obama administration officials who had authority over immigration matters told The Fact Checker on the condition of anonymity that they had no knowledge of the Obama administration offering citizenship or green cards to 2,500 Iranians as part of the JCPOA negotiations. Both officials said the claim was highly implausible, since such an offer to Iran would have required high-level authorization, and they had no indication that authorization was requested or given.
“This is not something that would have been negotiated without it being super public at the time,” one of the officials said. “There’s no question that Iranians were coming to the U.S. as refugees, and they have been for a long time. There are high levels of political and religious persecution in Iran. We may have brought in some refugees that were government officials of some level. But somebody who was a government official would be subject to a very high level of scrutiny and in most cases would be barred from entering because of the connection to the regime.”
In 2015, U.S. officials granted lawful permanent resident status to 13,114 people born in Iran, and an additional 10,344 Iranian-born people were naturalized, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security. Combining both totals, the United States gave citizenship or legal status to 2,223 more Iranians in 2015 than 2014. But the 2015 figures do not depart significantly from historical trends over the past 10 years, DHS data show.
What’s missing is any evidence of specific Iranian government officials or any of their children who benefited from a secret quid pro quo tied to the JCPOA.
“I have never heard any reference to this claim previously,” Maloney said of Trump’s tweet and Zonnour’s claim. “Frankly, if there is a single speck of truth to this, I’d be shocked.”
Zonnour estimated that 30 to 40 of the 2,500 people supposedly given citizenship or green cards were studying in the United States, according to the Fars report. He didn’t name anyone. A niece of Rouhani’s lives in the United States, as does a daughter of Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament.
These expats and others are an issue in Iran. In part because the country is on Trump’s travel-ban list, Iranians on social media have been calling for U.S. officials to deport the children of regime officials, Fox News quoted an expert as saying.
The Pinocchio Test
Let’s rewind. This claim from Trump appears to have originated with a hard-line Iranian cleric who opposes the Iran deal. Zonnour gave an interview to an Iranian newspaper, which was then repackaged by Iran’s semiofficial news agency, which was then picked up by U.S. media and then by the president on his Twitter feed (with some of the details garbled).
Three senior Obama administration officials pushed back on Trump’s claim, including Rhodes, who was intimately involved in the JCPOA negotiations. The burden of proof is on the speaker, but the Trump administration provided no evidence to back up the president’s tweet.
The president’s tweet merits Four Pinocchios, although we may revise this ruling if any corroborating evidence emerges.