Last Tuesday, December 8, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill, supported by the White House, which, if signed into law this week, would punish Iranians for crimes they have never committed. Moreover, it would provoke the hardliners in Iran, only a few months after a nuclear deal was reached between Iran and the P5+1 countries.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, committed by French and Belgian nationals, and the San Bernardino attacks, committed by a Pakistani-born and Saudi-Arabian-raised woman and her American-born and raised husband, House passed a bill which would exclude from the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) the visitors from 38 participating countries who have since 2011 travelled to Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Iran. If signed into law, target individuals would have to go through additional steps to obtain a visa to travel to the US. In a letter to the House, the ACLU criticized the discriminatory bill warning that it not only scapegoats people on the basis of their nationality, but also affects “journalists, scholars, refugee caseworkers, humanitarian aid workers, human rights investigators, and many others.” European Union ambassador to the US also criticized the bill and, together with the ambassadors of 28 EU ambassadors to the US, wrote that it would “disproportionately and unfairly” affect EU citizens with dual nationality and would “most likely only affect legitimate travel by businesspeople, journalists, humanitarian or medical workers while doing little to detect those who travel by more clandestine means overland.”
In his Dec 6 Oval Office address, President Obama ensured the nation that, “we would put in place stronger screening for those who come to America without a visa so that we can look at whether they’ve traveled to war zones,” as security experts argue that “routine travels” to war zones bear great risks. Obama did not clarify how this new measure would stop acts of terrorism committed by US-born or naturalized citizens, who are reported to account for “most of the attackers in the United States claiming or appearing to be motivated by extremist Islam.” Nor did he, or the House members, explain why Iran is included in the legislation but not Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Pakistan, where only 28% hold an unfavorable view of ISIS. The source and ideological hometown of ISIS, Saudi Arabia, in its proxy war against Assad as well as Iran, supported ISIS and Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia is simultaneously a US ally and a partner in the War on Terror. More interestingly, it was elected as Chair of a human rights panel in the UN Human Rights council in Geneva this year — despite having occupied a seat among the Freedom House’s top worst of the worst list. The state religion of Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism of Sunni Islam has long brainwashed and inspired many to commit acts of terrorism. Someone has to pay for these egregious crimes. Why not Iran, a Shia-dominant and ruled country? Why not Iranians?
Sharing a 910-mile border with Iraq, Iran has a huge stake in the battle against ISIS. Given the regional Shia-Sunni proxy wars, the pursuit of independence by Kurds across the region, the non-popularity of Iran among the Arab states, and the denunciation of Shiites by ISIS as apostates and therefore to be slaughtered, for Iran this is very much a battle over its unity and integrity. ISIS released videos of its massacre of 1,700 Shiites after they captured Tikrit in July, and the UN has documented the massacre of the Shiites in Mosul’s Badoush prison in June 2014 after the city fell into ISIS hands. Shiites were the ones targeted in the Beirut and Bangladesh attacks by ISIS. If anything, Iran is an enemy of ISIS and a non-official US ally in the fight against it. Parties involved in the fight against ISIS have differing political ambitions, clashing interests and goals in the Middle East, which is why they have been forging their own coalitions. Yet, even though Washington is concerned about Iran’s involvement in Iraq and Syria, no sound observer would deny Iran’s battle against ISIS. Meanwhile Obama has signaled frustration with the Arab allies who are not doing enough in this fight, with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE having pulled back from the anti-ISIS military campaign.
The inclusion of Iran in the list of VWP sanctioned countries has created inaccurate and political categories of criminality that would have dire consequences, but not only for the long-hostile relation between the two countries and millions of Iranians and dual-citizens. Obama fought a hard domestic battle to make the Iran deal happen. In an August interview with Fareed Zakaria, Obama defended the deal and compared its domestic opponents with the hardliners in Iran, both of whom have “a ideological commitment not to get a deal done.” He warned that,
If Congress were to reject this deal, then…the international unity that we’ve brought about over the last several years would fray, not just with respect to sanctions, but with respect to the world’s attitude about U.S. leadership and how they gauge who’s at fault in this dispute between the United States and Iran.
If signed into law, the VWP legislation would be a breach of the Iran nuclear deal by imposing trade limitations on Iran through travel restrictions to that country, something the EU and the US, according to the agreement, must refrain from. This, in turn, would provoke the very same hardliners in Iran who did not want a nuclear deal to begin with. The Iranian regime’s gross human rights record is no secret to anyone; Iranian pro-democracy and human rights activists themselves have long been outspoken on that matter and documented the systematic rights violations committed by the regime. Yet, concealing the truth about the serious involvement of the same non-democratic regime in the fight against ISIS and labeling Iranians as terrorist-hosts and suspects in this battle is not just propaganda. It is against the democratic values the US stands for, and it would undermine the painstaking struggle, hopes and dreams of the pro-democracy movement in Iran.