Iran’s apparent use of 20 U.S.-based hotel properties as polling sites for its recent presidential election has raised questions about the hotel owners’ compliance with U.S. sanctions and the appropriateness of their involvement in a vote that Washington criticized as neither free nor fair.
The U.S. was one of dozens of countries in which Iran said it had arranged for members of the Iranian diaspora to cast absentee ballots in the June 18 vote, won in a landslide by ultraconservative Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, an ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran's Islamist leaders have long said they draw legitimacy for their 42-year authoritarian rule from strong participation in national elections, and a high turnout by overseas voters could have bolstered that impression. However, official final figures showed a record low turnout of 48% for an election in which Khamenei’s allies blocked any formidable competition to Raisi’s candidacy.
Ahead of the vote, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Iranians outside the country could cast ballots on election day at 133 of Iran’s diplomatic missions, plus another 234 polling stations at nondiplomatic sites. He said the only countries in which significant Iranian diaspora communities would not be able to cast absentee ballots were Canada, Yemen and Singapore. It is not clear why Yemen and Singapore did not have the absentee voting, but Iran’s state-approved Tasnim news agency said the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations contacted Canada to request absentee voting and got no response.
A day before the election, the Iranian Interests Section of the Pakistan Embassy in Washington published an online chart showing the addresses of polling stations in 29 U.S. cities where Iranian citizens could vote. Besides the Washington diplomatic office, the other 28 venues included 20 properties of U.S. and British hotel companies. The remaining eight venues were Islamic centers, including mosques and a school.
Six US companies
The 20 hotel properties whose addresses were listed by Iran belong to six U.S. companies — Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Marriott International, Hyatt Hotels, Best Western International, Choice Hotels International and North Central Group Hotels — and British-based InterContinental Hotels Group.
VOA Persian contacted the Marriott Spring Hill Suites hotel in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and the Hilton Garden Inn in Irvine, California, on June 18 and confirmed in phone conversations with staff that the voting events for the Iranian presidential election were under way at the properties. The Atlanta Jewish Times reported that voting also took place at the Choice Hotels-owned Comfort Inn Sandy Springs in Atlanta, Georgia.
Brian O’Toole, a former senior adviser in the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control who managed OFAC’s sanctions program during former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, told VOA Persian that what the U.S. hotels did by hosting the voting events was “clearly” an export of a service to the Iranian government, something he said is generally prohibited by OFAC’s Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations.
“The voting event organizers are taking in results and sending them to Iran and the hotels are performing a service where essentially the benefit is received in Iran,” said O’Toole, now a senior analyst for the Atlantic Council. “So, the hotels would almost certainly need to have a U.S. government license [to be exempt from sanctions]. I can't think of a context in which they wouldn't need one for this kind of activity.”
VOA Persian contacted the corporate headquarters of Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Best Western, Choice Hotels, North Central Group Hotels and InterContinental Hotels Group by phone and email to ask whether they had requested and received U.S. government licenses for their U.S. properties to be used in the Iranian presidential election but received no responses.
The Biden administration’s State and Treasury departments also did not respond to multiple VOA Persian requests to comment on whether Iran’s absentee voter events in the U.S. were licensed. A woman who answered the phone at the Iranian Interests Section office in Washington hung up when told that a VOA reporter wanted to ask a question.
For the Iranian American nonprofit group National Union for Democracy in Iran, Tehran’s use of U.S. hotels for its presidential election raises not just legal issues but also ethical ones.
“American hotels allowed a regime that recently slaughtered hundreds of protesters and executes gay people to hold an election on their premises during LGBTQ Pride Month,” NUFDI policy director Cameron Khansarinia said in a VOA Persian interview. “It is really shameful.”
Iran’s Islamist rulers killed hundreds of people in a violent crackdown on nationwide anti-government protests in November 2019. They also have executed a number of men in recent years and decades for alleged homosexual acts, a crime punishable in Iran by death.
Iranian authorities’ disqualification of hundreds of candidates for the recent presidential contest, including all prominent rivals to eventual winner Raisi, also caused outrage among opposition activists who led a campaign inside and outside Iran to encourage a boycott of what they called a sham election.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price criticized the vote in a Monday press briefing as “pretty manufactured.”
Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior adviser Richard Goldberg told VOA Persian that Iran’s use of U.S. hotels for election activities and the lack of transparency regarding U.S. government licensing should prompt Congress to seek answers from both the Biden administration and the hotels.
He said U.S. lawmakers need to determine whether the Biden administration was using the absentee voting as a “carrot” to entice Iran into reviving a 2015 nuclear deal in which Tehran promised to curb nuclear activities that could be weaponized in return for sanctions relief from the U.S. and other world powers.
In 2018, then-President Donald Trump withdrew from that deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and started tightening U.S. sanctions to get tougher on Iran, which retaliated the next year by exceeding its nuclear limits. The Biden administration has been holding indirect talks with Iran in Vienna in recent months to try to secure what it calls a mutual return to JCPOA compliance.
Goldberg said Iran’s inability to set up polling stations in Canada indicated that Ottawa deemed them to be inappropriate.
“If the U.S. is more accommodating to Iran than our ally and neighbor Canada, that is another reason to ask some serious questions [about the U.S. policy],” he said.
The office of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not respond to an emailed VOA Persian question about why Ottawa did not grant Iran’s request to set up polling stations in Canada for the June 18 vote.
U.S. hotels have hosted polling stations for previous Iranian presidential elections, including in 2017.
O’Toole, the former Treasury adviser, said licenses for Iranian election activity at U.S. hotels typically would be granted long in advance, when it was not yet clear which presidential candidates Iran would permit to run.
In view of the mass disqualification for last week's vote, O’Toole said Iran’s use of the U.S. hotels “doesn't look great because of the way the elections went.” But he said that not licensing Iran's U.S. polling stations would “disenfranchise” Iranian American voters.
“We let people vote. That’s what we do,” O’Toole said. “We should not make it harder to vote, especially when a lot of people can't travel back to Iran for fear of being arrested.”
Khansarinia rejected that argument. "There is no equivalency, moral or otherwise, between elections we have in America and these elections in the Islamic Republic,” he said.
The activist said NUFDI has been calling the U.S. hotels to express its displeasure about the Iranian absentee voting events. “We intend to continue the pressure,” he said.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. State Department correspondents Nike Ching and Cindy Saine contributed.