New Bill Could Make it Tough for Iranian Tourists to Get Visas

Fearing restraints that could prevent an Iranian mother from comforting a daughter in childbirth in the United States, Iranian Americans are rallying against a bill under consideration in the U.S. Congress.

The bill, H.R. 3525: Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, strengthens border and airport security and gives the Attorney General and State Department power to restrict nonimmigrant visas for countries like Iran designated as terrorist states.

The wording of the bill would require extensive checks on each traveler from designated terrorist states. "No nonimmigrant visa may be issued to an alien from a country designated as a state-sponsor of terrorism, unless the Secretary of State, after consulting with the Attorney General and others, determines that the alien poses no safety or national security threat to the United States."

It is not clear what procedures the government would set up to enact the requirement, but checking each visa applicant would be time-consuming and expensive and could create a de facto ban on travel from Iran by ordinary citizens.

Mozhgan Mojab of the Persian Watch Center gained 10,000 signatures in five days on a petition opposing the bill.

Mojab sees no valid reason for the visa ban. "There has been no terrorist act committed by people of Iranian heritage on U.S. soil. On the contrary, over one million Iranian Americans and their Iranian relatives in the U.S. are highly educated and have made important social and scientific contributions. They are simply not terrorists."

Johns Hopkins Ph.D candidate Trita Parsi says the bill will do little to stop the terrorist acts of Sept. 11 since the terrorists were from countries considered to be allies.

Parsi is hopeful that reasonable procedures will allow travel from Iran to the U.S. to continue. "The procedures in place for Iran visas are already tough," he said. "They could keep the Iranian procedures the same and increase the restrictions for other countries to the level of Iran."

Badi Badiozamani, director of the Center for East-West Understanding supports any measure that identifies terrorists but says there needs to be a balance to allow innocent people to travel to the U.S. "The bill," he says, "deprives countries of bridges to the U.S. People coming here can be ambassadors of good will. And they need to see for themselves how freedom and democracy works."

In the meantime, there is renewed hope for a thaw between the U.S. and Iran. In his State of the Union last January, President Bush grouped Iran, Iraq, and North Korea together as the "axis of evil." After the speech, there were indications that Iran's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami had been granted permission to explore the possibility of negotiating with the U.S. after a 20-year diplomatic freeze.

But the freeze continued this week as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said that Iran's support of terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction placed it squarely in the "axis of evil." Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded by renouncing U.S. policies and declaring it useless to negotiate with the U.S.

Iran's position had always been that as precondition for talks, the U.S. had to lift the economic embargo or unfreeze Iranian assets. Now it is thought that any thaw in relations rests on the Bush administration's abandoning the "axis of evil" terminology.

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