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Obama Scores Points With the Iranian People

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In a message released on YouTube Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a long sought-after change in visa policy toward Iran. Under a single-entry policy, Iranian students studying in the United States could not leave without their visas expiring. The newly revised policy allows Iranian students to enter and leave the US multiple times.

Needless to say, the Obama administration's move was quickly welcomed by the Iranian youth. The White House has realized that being on the wrong side of the peoples of the Middle East undermines the US's position in the region and its national security. Obama's recent speech on the Middle East demonstrates that. But the proof is in the pudding. Is this just another wonderful speech, or will there be follow up.

When it comes to the Iranian street, the follow up came immediately -- and with that, the outpouring of goodwill. Mindful of the difficulties the previous policy posed, it is not difficult to understand why Iranian students are elated.

The previous policy posed enormous difficulties for Iranians wishing to study in the US. Students had to accept the fact that they would be unable to return home at any point during their studies, even to visit ailing loved ones or attend funerals of relatives -- among other things.

Often times those who would leave the US would find themselves stuck in an unpredictable and expensive visa process that would take anywhere from weeks to a year. Adding to the difficulty, the US has no embassy in Tehran so the applicants must apply from a third country. The visas do not always get renewed, causing many to abandon their studies in the US.

In March of 2010, during the president's annual address marking the Iranian New Year, President Barack Obama said, "We will sustain our commitment to a more hopeful future for the Iranian people. For instance, by increasing opportunities for educational exchanges so that Iranian students can come to our colleges and universities."

Iranian-American organizations joined together in an unprecedented effort to make sure Obama makes good on his pledge. Leading the charge was the Washington DC based National Iranian American Council (NIAC). NIAC initiated action alerts and a letter writing campaign that brought 10,000 letters to the State Department and White House. NIAC members in California even persuaded local politicians to take up the issue, and the California Democratic Party adopted a measure calling for the revision of the visa issue.

Together with student organizations and other concerned Iranian Americans, the community was able to organize on a grassroots level to change what was widely seen as an unfair visa policy.

The majority of Iranians were born after the 1979 revolution, and this key demographic group has spearheaded the struggle for freedom and democracy in Iran. The Obama administration has always recognized the power and potential of this young, liberal-minded segment of Iranian society that in 2009 posed the most serious challenge to the Islamic Republic in its 32-year history.

NIAC and other Iranian-American groups knew that the current administration recognized the vast difference between the Iranian people and their repressive government. To this end, they pushed for a visa policy that would reflect that difference.

But some elements in Washington opposed the measure, presumably because they don't believe in befriending the peoples of the region. Arch-neocon Michael Rubin argued that these students may be terrorists or spies, and radical activists in the Iranian-American community close the neocons made similar arguments.

Despite the efforts of these fringe elements, the Obama administration and the Iranian-American community triumphed. NIAC worked closely with the State Department and White House to educate them about the unintended consequences of the visa policy for over two years. The student group MEVISA was also instrumental in this change.

The episode marks an important milestone in the growth of the relatively new Iranian-American community and its experiment with democracy in the United States. The victory reinforced the understanding in this community that neoconservatives who claim they care about Iranians simply wish to push their bankrupt policies of confrontation, which almost always come at the expense of the Iranian people.

With greater clarity than ever before, this became an opportunity for Iranian Americans to observe the destructive elements within their own community. Far-right individuals in the community aligned with the neocons demonstrated that they never miss an opportunity to make the lives of ordinary Iranians miserable. Despite their clangor on LA based Persian satellite TV, these individuals who spend all of their time attacking groups that secure victories for the community, were unable to prevent positive change, exposing themselves and demonstrating that they have no base of support.

Most critically, however, this victory gives confidence to Iranian Americans that when united, they can be as effective as any other constituency in the United States in advancing their interests. This week the State Department acknowledged that it "regularly consults with Iranian student groups and Iranian American groups." The job is not yet done, as NIAC and others continue to work with the State Department to make sure the policy is inclusive and any remaining questions are answered. Though this change in policy may not seem hugely important to some, it marks a big step in the emergence of the Iranian-American community. For many who have closely watched this community for years, it appears that Iranian Americans are finally beginning to find their voice -- and the Obama administration is listening.