By Barbara Slavin
With the advent of the Trump administration, many Iran analysts feared the new president would scrap the landmark nuclear deal that curbs Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
Little did we know that U.S.-Iran relations were about to be set back more dramatically as collateral damage in a counter-productive presidential strike against immigrants, students, athletes and other visitors from Iran and six more Muslim-majority countries.
For more than 30 years, despite dramatic ups and downs in the government-to-government relationship, thousands of ordinary Iranians have traveled back and forth between Iran and the United States to see relatives, attend university and participate in athletic events and artistic exchanges. Not one has ever been charged with a terrorist attack in this country. Yet because of the Trump administration directive, no Iranians can immigrate here for at least 120 days and visitors from Iran, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia are barred for at least three months.
The late Friday executive order, prepared with little consultation with the rest of the U.S. government let alone foreign governments, set off scenes of chaos and heartbreak at airports around the world as people were taken off planes or detained on arrival in the U.S. by customs and immigration authorities. Legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two Iraqis detained at Kennedy Airport (one had been a U.S. Army translator; the other’s spouse had worked for a U.S. military contractor) prevented those just-landed from being deported for at least seven days. But the future remains uncertain.
The entire policy is a grievous self-inflicted wound that will hurt the American image in the world, undercut U.S. counter-terrorism efforts and put U.S. service personnel in countries such as Iraq in even greater danger. Unfortunately, it serves as a blueprint for the Trump administration: invent or exaggerate problems – while ignoring real ones such as climate change – and then devise “solutions” that only make the situation worse.
Refugees and even ordinary visitors from the affected countries are already subject to “extreme vetting” by multiple U.S. intelligence and security agencies. That is probably why none have been implicated in terrorist acts. The situation is not, as Trump wrongly insists, analogous to Europe where more than a million Syrians were able to pour in without any prior screening as their country collapsed in violence and refugees took to the seas and difficult land routes.
Even in Europe, native born have committed the bulk of terrorist acts, as is also the case in the United States. According to the George Washington University Program on Extremism, of 113 individuals arrested in the United States since 2014 for offenses connected with the group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS), the vast majority were U.S. citizens or permanent residents and many were converts to Islam. Unfortunately, the visa ban may make American Muslims less willing to cooperate with authorities to ferret out terrorist suspects before they strike.
The blow against countries such as Iraq, Libya and Yemen, where the U.S. has intervened militarily in recent years, seems particularly hard-hearted and short sighted.
So does the indefinite ban on immigration from Syria, where civil war has displaced 11 million people and made refugees of nearly five million.
Worldwide, there are about 21 million refugees. In the fiscal year that ended last September, the U.S. took in 85,000, including about 13,000 Syrians, mostly women and children. The Obama administration took in another 4,770 Syrians among 25,000 refugees admitted before Trump took office, and had planned for a total of 110,000 refugees in the 2017 fiscal year. The Trump administration has now cut that to 50,000 and may take no more Syrians at all even though some 60,000 Syrians have already been vetted for entry. In a phone call on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel explained to Trump that the refugee ban violates the Geneva Conventions.
The damage to the U.S. relationship with Iran is also a serious matter.
Americans who have visited Iran know that most Iranians have deep affection for the United States, which they see as a beacon of freedom and opportunity. In 2001, after the Twin Towers fell, Iranians were the only population in the Muslim world that spontaneously demonstrated in support of the United States, holding candle-lit processions in the capital, Tehran.
The nuclear deal provided a foundation for an improved bilateral relationship. Although Iran has continued to take harmful actions such as imprisoning a few Iranian-Americans on bogus charges, American tourists had started visiting Iran in greater numbers, more Iranian students came to the U.S. and athletic exchanges accelerated. The Boeing Corp. reached an agreement to sell Iran badly needed civilian airliners and Americans were traveling to Iran to implement the deal.
In the aftermath of Trump’s order, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it would have to consider a reciprocal ban although Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was quick to post on Twitter that Americans already holding visas would still be able to travel there.
Supporters of the Trump ban point to Iran’s support for terrorism. It is true that Iran’s government has been responsible in the past for hundreds of American deaths overseas, primarily U.S. servicemen and women in Iraq and Lebanon. Iran also supports Palestinian terrorist groups that have killed Americans in Israel.
But the Trump administration’s actions do not punish the Iranian government; they hurt ordinary Iranians and provide grist for regime propaganda that has long portrayed the United States as the “Great Satan.” On Saturday, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, an Iranian-born journalist for the Guardian newspaper, tweeted: “Iranian leaders failed for 38 years to convince their people that the US is their ‘enemy.’ This visa ban may just do that job for them.”
The ban is also humiliating for Iranian Americans who have made enormous contributions to this country. Among the most prominent: Firouz Naderi, Director for Solar System Exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, high tech entrepreneurs Kamran Elahian, Omid Kordestani, Pierre Omidyar and Noosheen Hashemi, tennis star Andre Agassi and comedian Maz Jobrani.
The photographer whose photo of the Inauguration – making the crowd look huge — so pleased Trump that he mentioned him in a tweet is from Iran as is the woman from Southern California who designed a ball gown for his daughter, Tiffany.
Blanket bans on immigrants are a form of collective punishment that reeks of the 19th century. They should never be considered except in a true case of national emergency. Such an emergency does not exist today.
Trump, whose grandfather emigrated from Germany, his mother from Scotland and his wife from Slovenia, won the election in part through appealing to fear of darker-skinned foreigners from Latin America and the Middle East. He has vowed to build a costly wall on the border with Mexico even though illegal border crossings have diminished in recent years. His continued insistence that Mexico will somehow pay for this wall defies reality and caused an early crisis with the Mexican government.
How much wiser it would have been for the new president to get up to speed about what is already being done to screen visitors before creating an unnecessary crisis. In a complicated world, mutual understanding and people-to-people contact are precious commodities. Let us hope that the new administration, having checked off another campaign promise, rescinds or at very least does not renew this unfortunate decision.