Start With Visas

How Obama can reach the Iranian people


Start With Visas
by Jamal Abadi & Trita Parsi

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.



Re:Trita prefers Iran's Brains EXPORTED out, just to distract us

by aynak on

"I mean is this how FAR this guy would go… to get this Giant moving-force
idea of Obama be lost to distraction among us, for expansion of Student
Visa’s? so more Brains leave the country and it would be easier to
govern Iran !!?
i'd say that Trita prefers
Iran's Brains be EXPORTED out , just so the Obama’s plea is
going to distraction for the rest of us in here!!  "

I am not sure what your IQ level is, but since reading some of the objections  thrown at  NIAC, I am seriously thinking of joining NIAC.  They will owe a lot of their new membership to folks like yourself.

There are thousands of people from India (not ruled by IR) and many other countries that would come to U.S given a chance and in an instant.  The question for the hypocrites who are of Iranianian decesnt and have come to U.S and living here  is that now they want to close the door on other fellow iranians.?!?   Why? 

Do you see Jewish American's telling U.S government not to admit more Jews to U.S because if they do so, there will be less Jews  who want to live in Israel? 

So your statements are flawed/contradictory in several accounts:

1: You think  it is ok for you to be in U.S but for other Iranians it is not?

(why don't you go back to Iran and change the system in Iran, if you care so much, instead of denying those who want to leave?)

2: We know Islamic Regime, does not give a rats ass about Iranian citizens rights, so WHO should look at the visa issues for Iranians in U.S, if not our community collectively?

3: How can the "author make everyone look otherwise"?   Are we cats to be able to  focus on one thing only?   What does supporting the right of a student to go to any country have anything to do with Obama's speech about the regime in Iran?

In case you don't know, many people who have left Iran over many years, do so without even knowing their final destination.   The refugees the exiled .... may already be it in Turkey or Greece or some other place, should they be denied access to U.S education, because bright guys like yourself think they would serve the purpose of overthrow regime better IF hey were in Iran.




May we all have good dreams.


Trita prefers Iran's Brains EXPORTED out, just to distract us ??

by easycake on

I mean is this how FAR this guy would go… to get this Giant moving-force idea of Obama be lost to distraction among us, for expansion of Student Visa’s? so more Brains leave the country and it would be easier to govern Iran !!?i'd say that Trita prefers Iran's Brains be EXPORTED out , just so the Obama’s plea is going to distraction for the rest of us in here!!  

when all Brains are moved-out so quietly, then who’s going to be there to lead for informing average Iranians in Iran about what they really need and what they would need to do about their Government!!  can you believe that the who issue of Obama's speech is being undermined ... and the writer of this article is pushing to change the subject from Iran’s situation and how Obama explained so well that a Country's Gov who is afraid of its own citizens gatherings and demonstration it is DUE to be gone in matter of months ...

and, in here, the Author is trying to make everyone to look otherwise and focus on the Visa for students of Iran, so Iran breaks its old TOP Record for Exporting its Brains outside the country ... !   can anyone understand Trita in here ... again and again!    


Re:Another aspect

by aynak on

You stated:


Most iranian students that want to go abroad do it just to leave Iran
forever... I have a cousin studying his PhD in Maryland right now and he
says he just wanted to leave Iran in some way and that this was the
only way for him...


By rejecting visas the US is indirectly helping Iran becoming stronger
in terms of intellectual capability. This will certainly affect Iran's


I am not sure I follow, are you suggesting rejecting visas to iranian actually helps Iran?   By that token, should you be thrown out of U.S so you can help over throw the regime?

Some people (?) in are way too smart when it comes to NIAC.   Doesn't matter what the topic is, if NIAC says sky is blue, there must be an IRI hand in there somewhere.    When I read the original post, I tried to find something objectionable in it.   But I could not.  Not only that I found all 3 suggestions very useful FOR ALL Iranians.

Then I looked at some of the responses, and one idiot goes as far as saying only rich-mullah affilated individuals can come to US anyway so what is the harm done by rejecting all Visa applications by Iranians to U.S.

These arse holes believe once their own family got off the boat, then they should cut the rope and sink the ship.

 Does not matter what one thinks or feels about NIAC, this particular initiatiave is just a good initiative.   If you have a substantial critique write down so and reason (if you understand what reasoning means).   But please spare us the garbage of  Islamic Regime will beneift from this, excuse, or mr X or Y who is currently in the regime was once studying in U.S so let's cut off everyone.   That type of moronic argument is not even worthy of 2nd grade discussion.



May we all have good dreams.



by afshin on

How about start by not treating tax paying American citizens who happened to have been born in Iran decades ago as second class garbage.  I've yet to come through immigration from an overseas trip and not get harassed.  After all this time they still don't get it.  The dude you're looking for comes from either Pakistan or Saudi Arabia and will usually tell you America sucks in your face.  And almost invariably will smell like they haven't bathed in a month.  CBP agents need to stop harassing Iranian born Americans!

Darius Kadivar

Why Should He ? He owes us Jack ! In Rome Do As Romans Do !

by Darius Kadivar on

Boro Baba You are either Iranian or American Period !


Judean People's Front

Don't ask for Perfection in this World ... It doesn't exist ! 


What have the Romans ever done for us


Besides Deem Yourselves Lucky ... You Ain't Libyan American:


PRECISION DRILLING: Allied Military Operations in Libya in Progress ...


Recommended Reading:


Is There Really an Obama Doctrine? - Room for Debate (NY Times)


Another aspect

by hirre on

Most iranian students that want to go abroad do it just to leave Iran forever... I have a cousin studying his PhD in Maryland right now and he says he just wanted to leave Iran in some way and that this was the only way for him...

This issue is causing a massive brain-drain in Iran. The only country that benifits is the US (brain-gain). This drainage makes sure that each year the intellectual capabilities (and further more the resistence) in Iran gets cut down by a percentage. It is like comparing to boiling rice; if the lid is removed too early there is no chance for boiling over and in the case of Iran we need things to get boiled over...

By rejecting visas the US is indirectly helping Iran becoming stronger in terms of intellectual capability. This will certainly affect Iran's future...

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

In my comment below, I have linked the specific case of two Iranians, which answers your question regarding who, what, and why.  Briefly, Who: Iranian students.    What: multiple entry visas.


Why: so they can leave the US for conferences and awards without taking a chance on being denied reentry.


bad odor

by koa on

God knows what these two magicians have in their sleeves.I am so sorry to see how our country men and women are going with these kind of BS. to a LALA land.

please wake up,visa to who ,why,for what,.

another way of income GOD SAVE US.


Shiela - I said a few are smart AND Islamic

by MM on

But, you can not throw away the whole basket because of a few rotten apples


I wonder

by shushtari on

why they did not ask the shah to 'change' and 'reform'??!!!

rather they helped khomeini come in and destroy iran and siphon our oil for pennies(no one knows what the selling price is, to whom it is sold, and where have all the trillions in profits gone)


the mullahs are exponentially more ruthless and corrupt than the shah ever was claimed to be......but they have been treated like royalty and given many chances to keep surviving........why? 

Sheila K

MM - about US educated in Iran

by Sheila K on

on your 3rd point:

Did you know that Larijani clan is mostly educated in the US- maybe except one of the brothers who received his doctorate from Tehran University,the other one went to UC Berkley graduate school in Math. Did you know about Dr. Chamran? 

He was a quintessential figure in Iran’s post Islamic revolutionand and the Iraq war. His education and careers in the US were very impressive. He was one of NASA’s top scientists in the field of Electro Physics. He was also a devout believer in the Islamic revolution and becoming a Shaheed in war and going to heaven and having the 70 virgins or hoories. So much for US education, ha? 


Most Iranians I speak to Consider Obama a sell out

by amirparvizforsecularmonarchy on

His Nickname in Iran is President Caca.

Not just because they hate what he stands for.

Because they hate America these days.  Hypocrites that talk about saving civilian lives, while causing 1 in every 2 Iraqi children to be an orphan.  And for what, to remove one secular system for an islamic one by coercion.

America loves Islam for every country in the middle east, why don't they take this islam they imposed on Iran in 1979 and Iraq in 2002 and use its principles for themselves.

Obama should change many things with respect to his countries policies towards Iran, until then he will be considered president Caca.

Ari Siletz

Who does the real work?

by Ari Siletz on

These Iranian students were honored for their work by being invited to Europe, one to lecture on her scientific research and the other to receive an art award. Because of the US single entry visa rule discriminating against Iranians, these two bright and talented minds could not leave the US to attend.  Such real problems need an organization to address them. NIAC is often criticized for acting like it is speaking for all of us when it fact it doesn't. Well, the organization may not speak for all of us, but it sure works for all of us.

Hafez for Beginners

Well Done NIAC (Human Rights Abuse)

by Hafez for Beginners on

NIAC is doing a tremendous job of keeping things in a balanced state. We can't scream "human rights" abuse - and then not allow students to visit loved ones, for sad or happy occasions, for 4 years! That's a very abusive policy.

Like inviting a guest to your home, but telling them to not eat, or not use the bathroom. Better to not invite them at all. I'm appalled by the single entry policy - it's a human rights abuse issue. If the student has been given the all clear to enter the US - what the heck does punishing him or her for 4 years do? If it's to appease the critics who let the student in, in the first place, then that's also pathetic. This law needs to end. 



What About Iran? What should Ahamdinejad do?

by bahmani on

While asking the US to fix broken polices is always useful on the one hand, meanwhile the other hand (Iran) is off doing really really bad things with the other.

Asking yet another ineffective UN group to observe the obvious, and write a report (has already been done) about it, is fine, but not sending the same Press release specifically targeted at Iran is kind fo cowardly.

I am sure it is based on the charter and corporate structure of NIAC that precludes it from complaining to Iran about ANYTHING, but frankly I'm tired of it.

When the bulb has burned out you need to replace the bulb. Not send a brilliantly written letter to the electric company.

We all know "why", the "what" happens in Iran. Asking the US to adjust fine tune and modify subtle, 3rd an 4th party hints and mildly made statements and suggestions, won't have any effect on Iran. especially if you don't even send the same letters to the same officials inside Iran.

NIAC should fax, email, mail, and broadcast the EXACT same statements to Iran that it so easily does to the US.

Corporate mission statements and tax exemption status be damned!

The point isn't to avoid an IRS audit, the point is to get Iran to change. Preferably without an invasion or a covert Israeli strike of last resort.

Continuing to avoid the potentially nasty (but probably toothless) reaction to the many easy criticisms of Iranian policies that are precisely creating the precarious position Iran seems too comfortable to be in, begs the question now.



three point to consider here

by MM on

1. I do not know about the European schools, but the Iranian PhD students who ace the enterence exams in the US (e.g., Stanford) are most likely not associated with the regime, and their brains are not saturated with thoughts of martyrdom or emam zaman coming out of a well.

2. The students who get into the Iranian schools because of their parent's wealth or because of Basij association with will definitely flunk the US PhD enterence exams.  Let's just assume that a small percentage are smart!  Well, so be it.  Why throw the baby with the bath-water?

3. The Iranian students here in the US are the best source of fresh perspective on freedoms experience here.  They take those thoughts back to Iran (if they do not get gobbled up here) and keep the freedom movement alive.


Thank you NIAC for all of your efforts to advance Iranians cause

by Bavafa on

And to give Iranian-Americans a voice in the U.S. that has been so greatly missing despite the number or success of all Iranian-Americans in the U.S.



Double standard

by MRX1 on

Since U.S government has no problem issuing visa to current and former cock roaches of IRI (Ganji, sazgara, khoenia, and many many others) why should they deprive avergae Iranian student ?

Sheila K

Do Iranian youths need to come to US to be educated?

by Sheila K on

Not anymore. There are far cheaper and superior educational institutes elsewhere in the regional countries with friendlier attitudes. US used to bethe hop of all for technology and education. Not as much anymore. There are plenty of universities in India, China, Russia and the new Republics costing alot less. In fact, if Iranians come abroad for education and career India maybe a better place than US as its job market will continue to grow exponentially for another 30 years.

As for US Visas exactly who does this cater to? The filthy rich Iranians associated with the IRI system?  



Thanks NIAC

by MM on



I read comments on a BBC web site...

by Roozbeh_Gilani on

About what Iranians wanted to ask Mrs clinton about the US policy on Iran. This visa thing seemed to be the top item if not the only item on most respondents agenda!

 I was quite a bit surprised and disappoined at first, thinking why not ask her about sanctions, or US policy on human rights violations in Iran, etc. Then I had to remind myself that people who respond to BBC, or seek their salvation in Mrs Clinton, by no means, repeat No Means represent the vast majority of the Iranian Nation!

"Personal business must yield to collective interest."

James D.

Thanks NIAC

by James D. on

No one is saying the students aren't greatful for the visas. But NIAC is saying that just because they got a visa doesn't mean Iranian students should have to miss the funerals of loved ones/academic conferences/etc or even getting stuck in Iran after they had to return for an important
family event. Imagine spending 5 years of your life working on a PhD, and then not being able to finish the program because you had to return for a family emergency and you can't get another visa.

We need to fix the single entry visa policy now, and I thank NIAC for taking up the cause.


They should be

by Raoul1955 on

Grateful for those 'single-entry' visas.  Here is how to change their mindset and be grateful for the privilege of being allowed into the US:

Let's assume that no Iranian national has been allowed into the US for the past 20 years, and then our government extends a little kindness to these people and begins issuing a 'single-entry' visa to them…