With new US visa restrictions, debates over discrimination and Iran deal cross paths

Listed by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism, Iran's citizens — primarily those living in Europe — will now face additional travel hurdles.

December 21, 2015 18:59
2 minute read.
Iranian US

Iranian passports with U.S. visas are seen at the U.S. embassy in Bern, Switzerland, March 23, 2007. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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WASHINGTON – America’s argument over racial, national and religious profiling at its borders occupies a wholly different wheelhouse than the continuing policy debate over the merits of a nuclear deal reached with Iran last summer.

But a bill recently signed into law, encumbering Iranian nationals and those who have recently traveled to Iran with new travel restrictions, has caused the two debates to briefly cross paths.

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of participating nations to travel to the US visa-free, with reciprocal privileges for its citizens.

But the Visa Waiver Improvement Act of 2015 creates an exception to the rule: Citizens of partner countries who also hold citizenship with or recently traveled to Syria, Iraq or any country listed as a state sponsor of terrorism must acquire a visa.

Listed by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism, Iranian citizens – including those living in Europe – are to face additional travel hurdles. Iranians worldwide have reacted by characterizing the provision as discriminatory.

But some have gone further, questioning whether the new restriction amounts to a violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear deal that requires the US lift sanctions in exchange for caps on its nuclear work.

“Congress has opened the door for American dual-nationals to be categorized as second-class citizens,” Jamal Abdi, executive director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), said in a statement after the bill’s passage.

“Further, high-level European diplomats have expressed their serious concern about the negative impact that the provisions could have on implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”

In a letter dated on Saturday, US Secretary of State John Kerry wrote to Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif offering to “clarify” the law.

“The recent changes in visa requirements passed in Congress, which the administration has the authority to waive, will not in any way prevent us from meeting our JCPOA commitments,” Kerry wrote. “We will implement them so as not to interfere with legitimate business interests of Iran.”

NIAC says that European governments, participating in the VWP, have promised to apply the same new standard on Iranian nationals – a move that would prevent Iranian- American citizens from traveling to the EU visa-free.

In the letter, Kerry mentioned several tools at the administration’s disposal for the easing of travel: The State Department can grant multiple entry 10-year business visas and offers programs for expediting business visas. And the law, he says, grants the administration broad waiver authorities.

A senior administration official told The Jerusalem Post that the provision was not ideal, but ultimately serves the national security interests of the US.

“This is a bipartisan compromise and like any compromise piece of legislation – there is some give and take – but we believe this legislation as a whole strikes the appropriate balance between ensuring the security of the homeland,” the official said.

The bill originally passed the House of Representatives with unanimous bipartisan support.

“To be clear, there are important and legitimate reasons for people to travel to regions that have been ravaged by conflict, such as the important humanitarian work that is happening in many of these regions,” the senior official continued. “We aren’t prohibiting people who have traveled to these areas from coming to the US, but rather are saying they are not able to do so visa free. We believe it is prudent to determine the reasons for any such travel prior to arrival in the US.”

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