Iranian American Society of Utah nonprofit says U.S. sanctions against Iran have created problems for it

When the Iranian American Society of Utah held an event last month featuring a performance by the celebrated Iranian actor Parviz Sayyad, members deemed the evening a success.

The show went off without a hitch and the nonprofit earned roughly $800 in online ticket sales alone, using the payment company Stripe to process the transactions.

A few days passed. Then, a week.

Nearly two weeks after the fact, the Salt Lake City-based organization still had not received its money nor any word from Stripe as to why there might be a delay in processing its funds.

Masoud Abbasi, the Iranian American Society of Utah’s (IASOU) secretary, said he thought it must be a mistake. After all, the standard payout timing for Stripe is two business days. But, when he reached out to Stripe’s support team, he got an email back saying that the IASOU would not receive its money until Abbasi explained the nonprofit’s “engagement with individuals or entities in Iran, if any.”

He was also asked to provide a detailed explanation of the IASOU, a working URL link to its website and details on what the money would be used for. Abbasi shared his email correspondence with The Salt Lake Tribune for this article.

“It wasn’t a great amount [of money]," Abbasi said, “but we are a charitable, nonprofit organization and that amount makes a difference to us because we do have bills to pay.”

The IASOU’s mission, according to its Facebook page, is to promote the Iranian culture, strengthen the Iranian-American community and provide certain cultural and social resources. Members work to connect the Iranian American community and offer support for those individuals. The IASOU is also a charitable organization that donates some funding to help Salt Lake City’s Iranian and homeless populations.

Sayyad, who is a Los Angeles-based actor, performed at the event last month at the request of IASOU members and was to be paid out of the ticket sales, Abbasi said.

Alborz Ghandehari, an assistant professor and lecturer of ethnic studies at the University of Utah and the IASOU’s civil rights committee director, said he believes the transaction was flagged in Stripe’s system because “Iranian” is included in the nonprofit’s title. Abbasi echoed this sentiment in his email correspondence with Stripe support team members, Delcan and Abram, neither of whom provided their surnames or any direct response to Abbasi’s accusation.

Stripe did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

“This was very alarming for us. We felt flagging the terms ‘Iranian’ or ‘Persian’ in these transactions is actually very discriminatory,” Ghandehari said. “We felt very frustrated. We felt very upset that yet another entity that we were working with or doing business with was casting doubt on the fact that we are members or citizens of this country and that this is our home.”

Ghandehari and Abbasi’s confusion and frustration by the situation was deepened, they said, by the fact that the IASOU had successfully used Stripe to process payments for two previous events in May and December of 2018.

While Abbasi did not receive any further communication from Stripe’s support team, the IASOU finally was provided its money after a review of the requested details.

“We felt that just because of our identity, our ethnic background, our transaction was being flagged,” Ghandehari said. “What the payment company is saying is, ‘We have to comply with sanctions.’”

And, while speculation by Ghandehari that the IASOU’s transaction was flagged from “overcompliance” with Iranian sanctions by the United States is unconfirmed by Stripe, the nonprofit’s financial squabble last month is not an isolated incident for Iranian and Persian groups and individuals across the nation.

The Bank of America was accused of discrimination in May 2018, against a number of Iranian customers when member accounts were suddenly frozen or closed. The technology and communications company Slack was also accused of overcompliance with sanctions by the National Iranian American Council last December, when Iranian nationals residing in the United States were barred from using their accounts. And the popular payment processing company Venmo was accused of discrimination last February, when a transaction titled “Persian shinanaganz,” was flagged for review while transactions titled “Heil Hitler,” “Supporting Nazis in Europe” and “Cuba sanctions” were not flagged in an experiment by Newsweek.

While Iranian sanctions are nothing new, the Trump administration has been ramping them up, most recently releasing a new round of them against Iran’s national bank in light of the attacks on Saudi Arabian oil fields. Under active sanctions, specifically in regard to banking and finance, regulations ban Iran from direct access to the U.S. financial system. If banks or financial systems are found to be operating an account for an individual or company directly related to Iran, that system would be found in violation of the Iranian Transactions Regulations.

These sanctions, however, do not include details of regulations of transactions by Iranian Americans. And the specific definition of “Iranian” in these regulations pertains only to individuals residing in the territory of Iran.

Ghandehari said that his experience with discrimination, hostility and racial violence goes back to his time in grade school when, after answering a classmate’s question about visiting family members in Iran, he was told that Iran is part of the “axis of evil” and that he “shouldn’t be communicating with family members because they’re part of this country.”

“There are members of our community that, in recent weeks and years, have experienced incidents at bars, at their work. People telling them to go back to their country, calling them terrorists,” Ghandehari said. “When we get an email like this from Stripe or Venmo or PayPal, it feels like assault. It feels like yet another person telling us we don’t belong here.”

No matter, Ghandehari said, the IASOU still works to provide a network of support for people experiencing discrimination, and to provide Utahns with “the real image” of who they are. Along with organizing cultural events that celebrate the Iranian community in Utah, the IASOU puts on charity drives to support that community and the area’s homeless population. As a nonprofit, Ghandehari said, the IASOU organizes these programs to also be part of the larger community.