Controversy over Iran component of US visa changes | News | DW | 22.01.2016
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Controversy over Iran component of US visa changes

The US has implemented a visa policy affecting EU citizens who hold dual nationality with Syria, Iran, Iraq or Sudan. Some say the issue isn't just about fighting terrorism, but also undermining the US-Iran nuclear deal.

The same day that Hossein Askari sent a business contract to a US partner company, the United States implemented tightened restrictions to its Visa Waiver Program.

The CEO of CoGAP, a Cologne-based company that uses genetic analysis to help people lose weight, Askari is a dual German-Iranian national. Starting on Friday, he must apply for a visa to meet his customer in Tennessee - an "annoying and bothersome process that I must do now just because I was born in Iran," Askari told DW.

"I feel like in the eyes of the American government I am always a terrorist and that I should prove that I'm not," Askari said. He added that discriminatory visa policy and extra burdens could ultimately end up affecting his decision to work in the US market.

Quickly passed law

In December, following terror attacks in California and Paris, the US Congress hastily passed a law packed into an omnibus bill that makes it more difficult for citizens of some countries to travel to the United States.

Under the Visa Waiver Program, nationals from 38 mostly European countries may enter the United States for business or tourism without a visa for 90 days.

Changes that went into effect Thursday require dual nationals of Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria to apply for visas - a process that requires an in-person interview and fees.

In addition, nationals from the 38 countries who have traveled to Iraq, Iran, Syria or Sudan since March 2011 must also apply for visas.

Why Iran?

The intent of the change was to prevent people with links to the "Islamic State" (IS) or other terror organizations from entering the United States, a concern that grew following the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, which were carried out in part by Europeans who had traveled to Syria.

Though IS is active in Syria and Iraq, adding dual nationals of mostly Shiite Muslim Iran, which has supported operations against the largely Sunni IS, raises questions. Sure, Iran is recognized as a state sponsor of terror for its support of Hezbollah and Hamas, but no Iranian has carried out a terror attack in the United States.

Meanwhile, dual nationals of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan or failed states such as Libya and Somalia, which also draw extremist fighters, were notably left out of the changes.

Jamal Abdi, the executive director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), told DW that provisions on dual nationals is an "unsophisticated attempt to look tough without really tackling the issue."

He said a more sophisticated approach would deal with foreign fighters slipping across the Turkey-Syria border and pointed out that both the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino and September 11, 2001, terror attacks had been carried out by people with ties to Saudi Arabia.

'Blanket discrimination'

The changes to the visa waiver program have been criticized as "blanket discrimination," to use the wording of the American Civil Liberties Union - a policy that also snares journalists, aid workers and businesspeople.

On Wednesday, the BBC Persia journalist Rana Rahimpour, a dual British-Iranian citizen, was prevented along with her young daughter from boarding a US-bound flight from London. The irony that a journalist from BBC, a news organization that is a thorn in the side of Iran's hardliners, was denied entry into the US was hardly lost on observers.

Seeking to deflect concern over parts of the new policy, the State Department and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced in a statement on Thursday that waivers would be determined on a "case-by-case basis" for journalists, businesses and aid workers.

DHS can also provide a waiver if it "is in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States."

Accordingly, waiver provisions could be applied to "individuals who traveled to Iran for legitimate business-related purposes following the conclusion" of the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran.

To even receive the waiver, though, travelers will still have to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops of applying for their visas - making the case-by-case provision little more than messy cosmetics.

Iran nuclear deal

Congressional Republicans used the suggestion that visa waiver provisions could be eased to lash out at the Obama administration and continue attacks on the Iran nuclear deal.

Iran has charged that the restrictions penalize travel to the country by Europeans looking to gain a slice of the market now that sanctions have been lifted. In response, Iran has threatened to retaliate - a move that could undermine the nuclear deal.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said in a statement on Thursday that the Obama administration was going against the intent of Congress by expanding a limited waiver provision to people doing business with Iran.

"Instead of following the new bipartisan law that Congress passed in December, the Obama administration has gone out of its way to accommodate the Islamic Republic of Iran," Royce said.

Abdi of the NIAC said there is a "real possibility" that Iran was added to the visa waiver restrictions to undermine the nuclear deal - something he said reflected the view of some lawmakers on Capitol Hill with whom he had spoken.

Regardless of original intent, Republicans who are against the nuclear deal "have very much, at least after the fact, turned this into an issue in which this legislation is being used to undermine the nuclear deal, and they are criticizing the Obama administration for any attempt to try to limit the negative impact," Abdi said.

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