Iran and the Visa Waiver Program

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On December 8, 2015, the U.S. Congress voted to pass the Visa Waiver Program reform bill seemingly to shore up the country’s security. The new law has received many criticisms so far.

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Narration: December 8, 2015; the U.S. Congress voted to pass the Visa Waiver Program reform bill to shore up the country’s security. Introduced by Candice Miller, the bill was to restrict a program that allowed citizens of 38 countries to travel to the US for business or tourism for up to 90 days without a visa. According to the bill,the citizens of these countries with dual citizenship in Iraq, Syria and Sudan and Iran as well as those who have visited these four countries since March 2011 can no longer enter the U.S. without obtaining a visa. Commonly referred to as H.R. 158, the bill was approved in the aftermath of theParisandSan Bernardinoattacks aiming to improve U.S. national security and prevent future attacks. It received overwhelming support in Congress and was quickly ratified.

SOUNDBITE [English] News anchor:“For more on this new security measure I’m joined by Washington host-reporter Carine Demirjian. Carine, I had a question for you. What was the initial catalyst for this change and what flaw was exposed that needed to be fixed?”

SOUNDBITE [English] Karoun Demirjian, Washington Post/Talking on visa waiver: “A lot of people in Congress had been looking at the visa waiver program for a while but I think what brought them altogether was the terror attacks in Paris, and then in San Bernardino and you had a lot of members saying, ‘OK, we really need to look at this very closely.” The first measure that Congress started to look at was Syrian and Iraqi refugee resettlement and then people said the visa waiver program was a much bigger concern because so many people do use the program to come to the United States and because a large percentage of the foreign fighters that jointed these extremist groups have European passport.”

Narration: The new visa law, however, has brought mixed reactions. Critics say that it punishes dual nationals, while some of them may have never been to their countries origins. Others argue that it will only bring a false sense of security to the Americans.

Joanne Lin from the American Civil Liberties Union has slammed the move, calling it a "wrong-head law which discriminates based on national origin, parentage, and ancestral ancestry.” For Lin, it’s “an unjustified discriminatory law that is fundamentally wrong and un-American.”

David O'Sullivan, the EU ambassador to Washington, has denounced the move as "indiscriminate action against the more than 13 million European citizens who travel to the US each year".

However, some believe the real target for H.R. 158 is Iran. The speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, has said that the changes in the visa waiver program amounted to the "harassment" of Iran.

SOUNDBITE [English] Press TV Anchor: “Iran is criticizing the recent approval of a bill in the US House of Representatives in tightening the visa-free travel to the US.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Hossien Jaberi Ansari, Iran Foreign Ministry Spokesman: “In Iran viewpoint, this legislation has a flaw because it runs counter to the International Free Trade Law and also against the fundamental principles of human rights because it goes for a collective punishment of several nations which runs counter to the very principles of human rights. Also, from another perspective, we should say that this legislation runs counter to the spirit of the nuclear agreement we have reached so far.”

Narration: Initially, the reform bill only introduced Syria and Iraq as “High-Risk” countries where Daesh controls territory. However, the bill took an unexpected turn to include Iran as a “High-Risk” country as well. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the inclusion was "absurd." In an interview with Al Monitor, Zarif added, "No Iranian nor anybody who visited Iran had anything to do with the tragedies that have taken place in Paris or in San Bernardino or anywhere else."

In fact, Iran has always opposed extremist groups and is currently fighting Daesh in Iraq and Syria.

The new visa law has caused some international controversy as it contradicts the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that United States along with United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China signed with Iran in July 2015.

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Narration: Under the paragraph 29, the US has agreed to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.” Although the new visa law will not directly affect the “normalization of trade” in Iran, it will throw a spanner in the works. For Iranian officials, the law seems intended to sabotage the nuclear deal. Iran has been hoping that many more tourists and businesspeople from Europe and elsewhere will start to visit the country once the sanctions are lifted but now many Europeans will give it a second thought whenever they want to travel to Iran.

Iran was hoping that the nuclear agreement would create a further boost to a tourist industry that had already relaxed visa requirements to attract more visitors to its ancient sights. The country is home to some of the world’s most magnificent historical and archaeological sites with ancient ruins, glittering mosques and spectacular landscapes. Relics of a proud ancient civilization include: Persepolis, the capital of the largest empire that the world has ever seen; the city of Isfahan ,the cultural capital of the region; Shiraz, the city of love and poetry. In the capital city of Tehran, famous for having ski resorts on its doorstep. Adventurous tourists had already been rushing to discover the riches the country has to offer. The lifting of sanctions on Iran as a result of its nuclear deal with world powers could result in a huge tourism boom. The new visa law, however, would discourage Westerners from visiting this tourist paradise in the Middle East.

In addition, rumor has it that many regular visitors, including artists and scientists are canceling their flight to Iran. Every year, a number of prestigious international festivals and events are held in Iran, attractive to many from all over the world. The new law will be a stumbling block that can cut off many international participants from their Iranian fellows.

The day after President Obama signed the law, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to reassure his Iranian counterpart that the administration would use executive authority to waive the provision if necessary. In a letter to Mohammad Javad Zarif he wrote: “We will implement them so as not to interfere with legitimate business interests of Iran”

But five congressional Republicans who strongly supported the new law delivered a sharp reply to Mr. Kerry in their own letter: [Ed Royce of California, Kevin McCarthy of California, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, Michael McCaul of Texas, Candice Miller of Michigan] “We are deeply concerned that the narrowly intended use of the waiver authority will be ignored in favor of applying the waiver authority to those who have traveled to Iran for business purposes.”

Experts believe that H.R. 158 like all other bigoted laws won’t keep the Americans safe. 15 out of 19 participants in the attacks of 9/ 11 were from Saudi Arabia; the San Bernardino attack was carried out by a US citizen and his wife, a permanent US resident, both of Pakistani extraction; and the origins of the Paris attackers ranged between a handful of countries, some of which – like Algeria and Morocco –totally unaffected by the new restrictions. In fact, recent terror attacks by so-called lone wolves and Daesh-inspired groups were coordinated by people with national origins in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, who are not included in the new visa waiver restrictions.

H.R. 158 would only affect legitimate travel by businesspeople, journalists, humanitarian or medical workers while doing little to detect those who travel by more clandestine means overland. European Union citizens who are dual nationals of a proscribed country would also be unfairly affected; such indiscriminate action against the more than 13 million European citizens who travel to the U.S. each year would be counterproductive, while instead hurting economies on both sides of the Atlantic. The new visa waiver program will create a second tier of American citizens at home, without any basis in character or behavior, a betrayal of the American values. Legislated discrimination is always regretted in hindsight, yet the US continues to fall for it.


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