Hillary Clinton’s announcement last week regarding a change in US visa policy was welcome news to Iranian students coming to America to study. With the old single entry visas there was no guarantee that Iranian students would be able to return to class if they left the US to, say, visit a sick parent. But from now on, new students will receive two year multiple entry visas. This compassionate policy change was announced a few weeks after Huffingtonpost published an article by Jamal Abdi and Trita Paris titled, “How Obama Can Reach the Iranian People: Start With Visas.” However, behind the scenes, the National Iranian American Council, an organization founded by Trita Parsi, had been working on the issue for almost two years. I emailed NIAC to ask how it had picked the visa problem to tackle out of all the other issues competing for its resources. Here are three points that I learned along with some discussion:
1- A lot of Iranian Americans, both members and non-members, had pointed out how unfair the situation was.
I was one of the people who had contacted NIAC regarding the unfairness of the single entry visa policy. One of my daughter’s Iranian classmates had been invited to Ireland to lecture on her scientific research and she couldn’t go without risking her education and career. It was sad to see this brilliant young Iranian scientist having to ask another researcher to present her work at the seminar abroad. I publicized the case of this young woman in a blog where she says, “All my Lab is currently in Dublin meeting with a group of scientists about MY research, and I could not go.” In a more tragic case, one student could not attend the funeral of a family member executed by the Iranian regime. The US government was inadvertently treating Iranian youth as enemies even as they were being beaten and killed by their oppressors.
2. NIAC knew that tackling the issue was within the scope of their expertise and capabilities.
I wasn’t sure to what extent civilian action groups like NIAC helped with government decisions on the Iran issue, so I asked the US State Department for an official statement. This was their reply,
“The new visa validity for Iranian students is a concrete example of President Obama’s pledge to support Iran’s young people and to build new avenues for engagement with Iran’s youth. The State Department regularly [boldface mine] consults with Iranian student groups and Iranian American groups about the steps we can take to allow Iran’s young people to better interact with the rest of the world.”
We thank President Obama for his pledge. We also thank the State Department for clarifying for us that there is an emerging Iranian American voice because “Iranian American groups” are consulted and therefore do play a role. In fact I found NIAC quite eager to also give enormous credit to the student group MEVISA (Multiple Entry Visa for Iranian Students) for their efforts.
Part of NIAC’s expertise is their savvy in how the American system works. For example, which senators and congressmen to approach and what each of these influential people need from us in order to help them make our case for us. NIAC knew to approach Senator Carl Levin—in fact they have cultivated a long-standing relationship with him. NIAC knew that President Obama’s Norooz message wanting more Iranians to study in the US was a general policy signal inviting ideas as to how to implement it. They met with the State Department and the White House to bring their attention to this problem, while pointing out that the visa issue was an opportunity to carry out the President’s directive. As part of a public campaign, NIAC created a video last year bringing attention to the fact that the single entry visa contradicted Obama’s Norooz message to the Iranian students. NIAC initiated action alerts, wrote website articles and led a remarkable letter-writing campaign that brought 10,000 letters to the White House and the State Department requesting a change in the unfair visa policy. This is the substance of the statement made by the State Department spokesperson attesting to the fact that we are participants in our government’s decision making. As individuals our civilian power is limited to the single vote because many of us don’t know how to “log onto” and navigate our democratic institutions effectively. Here’s where we use the specialized organizations that we have helped create. NIAC is one such organization.
3. The visa issue fit within the framework of NIAC’s current focus.
NIAC’s focus tracks the concerns of Iranian Americans. At one point there was great fear that the US might launch an attack against Iran, so at that time one NIAC focus was on anti-war advocacy. Priorities have changed for Iranian Americans since the 2009 Iran election protests; we are now more focused on Iran’s human rights issues. It is no surprise then that NIAC would take on an issue that provides relief to Iranian youth who would choose to continue their education outside of Iran’s relentlessly politicizing universities, and outside the confines of a dictatorship in which fresh ideas cannot be easily discussed and analyzed.
Despite the obvious humanitarian aspect of the visa policy change, there was some opposition to NIAC’s advocacy on behalf of Iranian students. Last year Michael Rubin wrote an article saying the US shouldn’t relax visa rules on Iranian students unless Iran also relaxed visa rules on American citizens. As though thousands of American students are trying to flee the repressive academic environment in the US to seek refuge in Iran’s educational haven. And as though the IRI is ever so eager to accommodate Iranian students who are sick of tyranny and would choose to study abroad. To bolster his argument Rubin mentions that some Iranian students may be terrorists or spies.
Astonishingly, there are Iranian Americans who would side with Rubin against NIAC.
I have witnessed how attacks against NIAC have gained a foothold in the minds of some Iranian-Americans even as they feel sympathy for the suffering inside their country of origin. Why won’t NIAC address larger human rights issues? they ask, downplaying NIAC’s humanitarian efforts. One issue NIAC has been addressing all along would be obvious to any peace activist: they advocate against over-zealous sanctions hurting innocent Iranian workers whose livelihoods are caught in the middle of the US-Iran conflict.
Here’s how the sanction issue works. The US puts a blanket economic sanction on Iran. IRGC businesses are weakened, but also Iran’s rug exports drop, for example. Some family in a village who makes a living dying carpet yarn becomes unemployed. Now, if as a result of US government action some American carpet dyers suffered financially, they would organize, talk to their congressmen and see if there was a way the US could accomplish its goal without running American carpet dyers out of business. The government would check and maybe come up with a way to have the cake and eat it too. The Iranian family in the village can’t do that. But we can be the voices for these innocent Iranians because we are American citizens. We can organize and make our government do the hard work to re-design the rules so that the US position against the IRI is not affected but at the same time the Iranian family has enough to eat. It may not work, but it’s a humanitarian responsibility to try.
Obviously NIAC has the potential to succeed on grander scales in the future. It is the nature of institutions in the democratic world to start small and slowly grow in power through small successes, incrementally increasing their popular support. NIAC, however, faces bigger challenges relative to the typical advocacy organization because it straddles both the democratic and the non-democratic worlds. Centuries of one-man rule have had a disorienting effect on the Iranian political mindset that tempts us to place unreasonably high demands on this still maturing organization. At the same time too many of us refuse teamwork and political participation in achieving the results we demand. The strategy of NIAC’s opponents has been to leverage this aspect of the Iranian American democratic inexperience against us by generating resentment against this organization. Operating by innuendo they spread rumors about NIAC to create an aura of conspiracy around it.
NIAC’s Trita Parsi is optimistic, however:
“This [visa] episode showed that when our community comes together, there is so much we can achieve. Our destiny is truly in our own hands. We can choose to listen to the destructive elements who only complain, only accuse and only destroy, or we can choose the constructive path that leads to improvements, solutions and renewed hope.”
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