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NGOs quietly press for access to Iran

Despite intensified sanctions on Iran, US-based nongovernmental organizations are trying to prove that they should be allowed to work in the country. The process is daunting enough that many groups give up.

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Iran temporarily stepped out of diplomatic isolation last week with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech to the UN General Assembly. For Americans, it was a rare opportunity to hear the controversial leader in his own words.

Lending a particularly keen ear to the discourse were US-based nongovernmental organizations. They are quietly pressing to gain access to Iran to do humanitarian work they say is needed and to bridge the communication gap between Americans and Iranians.

But US sanctions are hampering their efforts, some say. Sanctions against Iran date back to 1987 and have been ratcheted up several times. The Obama administration raised them further this summer, making it more difficult, for example, for Iran to buy refined petroleum and modernize oil and gas production.

For NGOs hoping to work in Iran or with Iranians, proving to the Department of Treasury – which issues the appropriate licenses – that their work is humanitarian and won’t violate sanctions is so challenging that many NGOs give up, says Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council, a US-based nonpartisan organization that handles Iranian issues. The number of US-based organizations currently in Iran is not publicly available from the Treasury.

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