The Obama administration on Tuesday eased longstanding restraints on humanitarian and good-will activities between Iran and the United States, including athletic exchanges. It was at least the second U.S. government relaxation of Iranian sanctions this year and came as Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, has signalled his desire to improve relations.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees the sanctions on Iran, said in a statement that it had cut the bureaucracy for obtaining exemptions in order to expedite the provision of health services; disaster relief, wildlife conservation; and human rights projects in the country. Also authorised are “activities related to sports matches and events, the sponsorship of sports players, coaching, refereeing and training, in addition to other activities”.

The Treasury statement said the action, which eliminates requirements for special exemption licenses on a case-by-case basis, reflected what it called “this administration’s commitment to reinforcing ties between the Iranian and American people”.

The National Iranian American Council, which is critical of Iran’s government but opposes the sanctions, said it had been working for years to loosen the restraints.

“Today’s action is critical in helping prevent broad sanctions from isolating ordinary Iranians and ensuring that humanitarian needs of ordinary people do not fall prey to political disputes between the U.S. and Iranian governments,” the group’s policy director, Jamal Abdi, said in a statement. “In lieu of formal diplomatic relations between the two governments, people-to-people diplomacy and athletic exchanges are crucial for bridging divides between the American and Iranian people.”

The Treasury action came only a few weeks after an Iranian tennis referee, Adel Borghei, hired in May to work at the U.S. Open, was blocked from taking the job because of sanctions regulations enforced by the Treasury Department. The Akrivis Law Group, a Washington firm that specialises in sanctions law, agreed to represent him and secured a license that enabled him to work .

An Akrivis lawyer, Farhad Alavi, said in a telephone interview that the timing of the Treasury’s easing of the rules “obviously follows on the coattails of the tennis case”. — New York Times News Service

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