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How Obama Can Reach the Iranian People: Start With Visas

Posted: 04/ 1/11 09:12 AM ET

On March 20, President Obama marked Norooz, the Iranian New Year, with his strongest words to date in solidarity with the people of Iran. "Though times may seem dark," he told Iranians, "I am with you."

Days later, with significant US backing, the UN Human Rights Council voted to establish a human rights monitor on Iran, answering the call of Iranian human rights and democracy activists.

This was an impressive victory for the president's strategy of UN engagement and was praised by international human rights organizations as a tangible means to help protect human rights in Iran.

It was also an important demonstration of how President Obama can translate supportive rhetoric into meaningful action to stand with the Iranian people. As we have learned from the past, lofty rhetoric about freedom is meaningless without sound policies behind it.

The president's critics predictably dismissed the monitor victory as too modest, too pragmatic, too dependent on international support. They fail to acknowledge that three decades of enmity and conflict will not be resolved in a single step.

There are a number of crucial measures to build on the monitor effort. Though they may not appear sweeping enough to some, they actually make a difference. The absence of a silver bullet should not prevent us from taking these small but important steps to stand with the Iranian people.

Fix Visa Policies for Iranian Students

Iranian students are a critical demographic of Iran's human rights and democracy movement.

Recognizing this, President Obama directed much of his recent Norooz address to the majority of Iranians who were born after the turmoil of 1979 that sparked decades of US-Iran enmity. In last year's Norooz address, the president even committed the US to seeking "a brighter future" for these young Iranians by expanding student exchanges with Iran.

President Obama should honor this promise by fixing a glaring problem for young Iranians seeking to study here: the Single-Entry Visa policy.

For many young Iranians, studying abroad offers a reprieve from the repression they face at home from their government. Students have faced increased restrictions since 2005 under Ahmadinejad that has only escalated in the aftermath of the 2009 elections. And students seeking to study abroad are pressured not to study in the west, with some Iranian officials even threatening to ban study in the US entirely. Instead, students are provided incentives to study in Russia and China.

But those Iranians who do choose to seek to attend American schools face significant and unnecessary restrictions from the US government. Under the Single-Entry Visa policy, students who come to the US cannot leave for the duration of their studies without losing their visa.

Iranian students at American schools find that the restrictions under the Single-Entry Visa policy cost them academic opportunities and cuts them off from their families. Students have shared stories about not being able to visit ill relatives and, in one case, being prevented from returning to Iran for the funeral of a family member who was executed by Iran's government.

These students ask why the US, if we say we are friends with the Iranian people, subject them to restrictions that no other nationals from Middle East countries face.

Obama should take the seemingly small but vastly important step to repeal the Single Entry Only policy and allow Iranian students to obtain a multiple-entry visa to study in US schools. There is no better way to convey our friendship with Iran's youth than to offer an outstretched hand as Iran's government clenches its fist.

Eliminate Internet Restrictions

As former New York Times Tehran correspondent Nazila Fathi explained recently at a NIAC conference on Capitol Hill, "If the US wants to help, the first thing [Iranians] need is access to the Internet."

Unfortunately, the US imposes its own firewall on Iran through sanctions that restrict software and hardware from being exported to Iranians.

"Lift the sanctions," says Fathi. "Iranians cannot even buy Skype credits to talk on Skype lines, they have to rely on telephone lines that are monitored by the Iranian government. There is satellite internet over Iran, but because of the sanctions they cannot access it."

The first step to supporting Internet freedom in Iran is for the US to get out of its own way.

The Obama administration worked during the height of the Green Movement protests in 2009 to shield certain types of communication software from sanctions. Unfortunately, it took nine months to lift restrictions, and only on rudimentary chat software.

Other basic tools that Iranian activists want access to remain blocked without a special license. For instance, Google's secure web browser Chrome was not allowed in Iran until January of this year -- a full year and a half after the June 2009 elections -- because Google did not have the necessary US government license.

President Obama should move swiftly to allow the free flow of communication tools to Iranians. The US should exempt useful Internet software, hardware, and services from this counterproductive, cumbersome licensing requirement.

End Humanitarian Restrictions

In 2009, Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) introduced legislation to sanction Iranian human rights abusers and companies that support Internet censorship, while easing restrictions on US humanitarian and human rights organizations.

The sanctions eventually became law, a positive step. But the proposal to allow humanitarian and human rights organizations to work in Iran has yet to be acted on, so these activities face restrictions similar to those on Internet technology,

In fact, in 2003 the US eased these restrictions in response to the devastating earthquake in Bam, Iran -- but only temporarily. The efforts of humanitarian groups like Mercy Corps and Relief International to assist in disaster relief over that twelve month period did not just address a moral imperative, they helped engender goodwill among the Iranian people and benefited US interests.

We should not bar Americans from working directly with Iranians to improve child and maternal health, treat drug addiction, or prepare and respond to natural disasters. The president should permanently lift the restrictions that prevent Americans from exporting goodwill to the people of Iran.

Many of these proposals have languished for lack of political space in Washington and a demand for silver bullets. But while these measures may seem small to some, they will enable the US to make a positive impact. President Obama now has an opportunity to create his own space and match his promises with important policy adjustments. He must not miss this opportunity to truly stand with the Iranian people.


Jamal Abdi is Policy Director and Trita Parsi is President of the National Iranian American Council, the largest grassroots organization representing the Iranian-American community in the US.

 

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