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US Visa Waiver Reform is Illogical, Unfair and Harmful

HR 158 is a rash anti-terror measure that sweepingly discriminates against Iranians in punishment for the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.

Earlier this year, the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) signed a monumental agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) created a new atmosphere of trust between Iran and the West after decades of animosity stemmed from historical grievances. However, the US Congress could bring that all to a halt with the passage of a heavily politicized bill aimed at bolstering national security.

In the wake of the recent San Bernardino shooting that left 14 people dead, Republican House leaders introduced HR 158, which would restrict certain groups of people based on their ethnic background from entering the US without a visa. The Visa Waiver Program in its current form allows citizens from 38 different countries, many of which are in Europe, to travel to the US and obtain a tourist-visa on arrival, as opposed to pre-arrival like most other countries. However, HR 158 would prevent nationals of and people who have traveled to Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Iran from using the program, even if they wield citizenship from one of the approved 38 countries.

Singling Iran Out

Iranians are yet again caught in the political crossfire of a Republican-controlled House. HR 158 is unfair to ordinary Iranians, illogical because there is little to no possibility of a terrorist attack from Iran on the West, and harmful to progress between West-Iran relations made possible because of the historical nuclear deal. Despite this blatant reality, the House passed the legislation with a vote of 407 to 19. It is also expected to effortlessly pass the Senate and be signed by President Barack Obama, who has not publicly voiced any opposition to the bill.

Although HR 158 seeks to tighten national security in the US, its singling out of Iran is entirely illogical. Initially, reform to the Visa Waiver Program only called for restricting visa access to those who have traveled to Syria and Iraq following the devastating Paris attacks. While still unfair in many regards, at least the authors of the bill were able to accurately draw a link between the Islamic State (or Daesh) and the two countries, considering that the terrorist organization controls significant amount of territory in both. After the more recent San Bernardino shooting, the House added Iran and Sudan to the list. Supporters of the bill argue that the addition of the two countries will reduce the risk of a terrorist attack on American soil, since both Iran and Sudan are on the US-designated list of state-sponsors of terrorism.

The latter is for the most part true. It is no secret that Iran bankrolls and supplies the Shia Lebanese militia Hezbollah with arms to fight opponents of the Assad regime in Syria. Its main objective is to protect the political power of Lebanon’s historically marginalized Shia population, aid the Palestinian resistance against Israel, and most recently uphold the Assad regime. Even though Hezbollah is often spoken of in the same breath as Daesh and al-Qaeda by American political leaders, it poses little to no threat to the US. It has never launched an attack on Western soil. Even if it had, then Lebanon would have been added to the list of countries stricken off the Visa Waiver Program, where Hezbollah is actually based out of. Instead, Iran is yet again scapegoated in lieu of any will-power or logic by these leaders to actually safeguard the US from a terrorist attack.

Iran is an easy target since many Americans continue to see the Islamic Republic as a nuclear-weapon-wielding bogeyman. What is misunderstood is the fact that Iran actually serves as one of Washington’s most effective counterterrorism allies. Tehran wants to annihilate Daesh just as much, if not more than the US. Daesh is a radical Sunni terrorist organization that foremost seeks to eradicate Shias, who it views as heretics, even more than Christians and Jews. Indeed, Daesh is known to have actually spared many Christian lives in Iraq, while typically executing Shias on the spot. It has stayed surprisingly silent on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, likely because the Palestinian resistance movement is relatively secular. It also probably hopes to avoid eliciting robust Israeli intervention in Iraq or Syria, because of its formidable military capabilities that could undoubtedly make a significant dent in the war against Daesh.

Different Rule For Saudis

Looking back at the most significant terrorist attacks carried out by radical Islamists in the US, Iran had absolutely no role in any of them. Despite the US waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq, 9/11 was predominantly carried out by Saudi nationals. Similarly, the two attackers behind the San Bernardino shootings were of Pakistani descent, who had both spent a significant amount of time in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are believed to have terrorist activities being conducted inside the countries by al-Qaeda and Daesh, and carried out by their nationals abroad. However, like HR 158, in the wake of 9/11, Washington restricted Iranian student visas but not for the Saudis.

If the House hoped to justify its sweeping visa-restrictions in the name of counterterrorism, then Saudi Arabia and Pakistan should have made the cut. Iran, which has been a common foe among both Republicans and Democrats, has once again fallen victim to yet another sweeping anti-terrorism measure that punishes ordinary Iranians instead of actually addressing the root of the problem.


Visa waiver reform is illogical. It creates blanket discrimination based on ethnic background, and will do more harm than good. When the bill passes the Senate, which it most likely will, President Obama must veto the new reforms and demand lifting the additional restrictions…


Iran ironically does not sponsor, support or even benefit from terrorist groups like Daesh. Those who wield passports from any of the 38 countries included in the Visa Waiver Program and travel to Iran are not a threat to the US. Instead, they tend to be members of Iran’s massive Diaspora community seeking to look for work and freedom outside of the Islamic Republic. They are pro-Western, pro-democracy and anti-extremism. Alienating them through bills like HR 158 will only serve to distance them and shatter their trust with the US government, especially on the heels of the historical nuclear agreement. Washington will be greatly hindered if both Iran and Iranians alike become less willing to cooperate with the US to fight radical Islamist actors like Daesh.

HR 158 is also harmful for national security because it gives the illusion that Congress is taking action to safeguard America from any terrorist attack, while in reality it is only making it worse. Iran is one of the US’ closest allies in the fight against Daesh, and it has served a significant role, especially in Iraq, in combating the terrorist organization. It will be difficult for Tehran to justify fighting a war with the US, while the US is waging a war on its people.

Targeting Iranians is not only illogical for strengthening national security, but also exceptionally unfair. The bill in its current form restricts nationals from Iran and those who have traveled to the Islamic Republic from entering the US without a visa, even if they have dual citizenship with one of the 38 eligible countries.

Congress is using passports as a way to discriminate against ethnic background and religion. This is especially problematic for Iranians because Tehran considers any child of a male citizen born in the country to be an Iranian national. Thus, even Iranians with the loosest of ties to Iran could be subject to these new restrictions precisely because of their ethnic background, even if they were born and raised in one of the exempted countries and have no relationship with the Islamic Republic.

Iranian-Americans

The bill also adversely affects Iranian-Americans. The Visa Waiver Program is a reciprocal agreement made between the US and 38 other countries. Americans can travel to these countries without a visa, and vice-versa.

These countries could easily reciprocate the changes that Congress is making by similarly alienating Iranian-Americans, in addition to Iraqi, Syrian and Sudanese from entering their countries without a visa. The European Union has already warned that “legally-mandated reciprocal measures” could be enforced if Congress passes HR 158. Not only would Iranian-Americans find it more difficult to travel abroad, but upon return, they would be treated like foreigners by their own country.

The proposed changes to the Visa Waiver Program are a mistake, and actually threaten national security—the very thing that it seeks to protect. It jeopardizes the Iran nuclear deal, which the Islamic Republic and the international community had taken painstaking measures to reach. Tehran could (rightfully) feel that due to the self-destructive nature of the American political system, that Washington could very well back out of the deal and refuse to lift the economic sanctions on Iran.

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It is actions like the inevitable passage of HR 158 that provides Iranian hard-liners with ammunition against the reformers that Washington is a partner it cannot trust, and that the nuclear deal was a mistake. The hard-liners have already expressed extreme reservation, if not opposition to the JCPOA.

The dismantling of the agreement could serve a major blow to the reformist camp, which is one of the only political actors in Iran trying to open up to the West. The fate of reformers easily rests on the success of the nuclear deal, as does ultimately the fate of the country.

However, it is not only the Iranians that the bill is alienating. It also targets Iraqi, Syrian and Sudanese nationals, most of whom like the Iranians are Muslim. The Muslim community feels particularly betrayed by Washington. Political leaders voicing solidarity and support with American Muslims in response to Donald Trump’s bellicose proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the US has been reduced to be mere rhetoric, as evidenced by HR 158. The bill not only fails to address curbing terrorist attacks on American soil, but exacerbates Islamophobia because of how it affirms that Muslims are terrorists.

The American Muslim community is the US’ most formidable line of defense against radical Islam. If it hopes to improve national security, the US needs to be working with them, instead of against them.

Visa waiver reform is illogical. It creates blanket discrimination based on ethnic background, and will do more harm than good. When the bill passes the Senate, which it most likely will, President Obama must veto the new reforms and demand lifting the additional restrictions, especially to Iranians who have repeatedly been scapegoated by Democrats and Republicans alike.

This will not only show courage and resolve by the Obama administration to accurately address pitfalls in American national security, such as homegrown radicalism and gun violence. It also serves as an act of good will toward Iran and affirms that the US intends to uphold the nuclear agreement, which it fought for years to reach. It could also mark a turning point in American politics, when leaders stop acting out of fear after tragic events like the Paris attacks and San Bernardino shootings, and instead begin acting rationally.

The first step is recognizing that Iran and the Iranians are not the problem. They are part of the solution.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Jorisvo / KieferPix / Shutterstock.com


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