Under the radar: an Iranian and America

Omid Memarian
16 August 2006

Imagine if eighty prominent American scholars were invited to Tehran for a conference. After months of securing visas, final clearances, and days of travelling, they arrived at the Tehran airport only to be detained, shackled, and deported back to the United States. Such news would inevitably make headlines in the US.

On 2 August 2006, more than 300 Iranian scholars, professionals and scientists travelled to the Hyatt Hotel in Santa Clara, California, for an international alumni reunion of the prestigious Sharif University of Technology. This reunion is held every two years in a different country. Most of these Iranian nationals were flying in from their homes in Europe and north America. Eighty of them, however, were coming from Iran itself.

Omid Memarian is an Iranian journalist and civil-society activist. He was awarded Human Rights Watch's highest honour, the Human Rights Defender award, in 2005. In that year, he was a visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Omid Memarian's blog is here

These eighty alumni arrived at Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and San Francisco airports, possessing valid visas issued by the US consulate in Dubai. Immigration officials in the US detained these Iranian visitors in what one alumnus described as "jail-like" conditions. All were deported. A renowned academic telephoned the conference organiser waiting at San Francisco airport, saying he had never been so thoroughly humiliated and insulted as he was that day by US immigration.

A spokeswoman for the US department of state's bureau of consular affairs said: "Visas can be revoked at anytime, when there are indications of possibility of ineligibility for admission into the United States".

For an Iranian, securing a visa to the US is an arduous process, entailing two or more trips to US consulates abroad, usually in Dubai or Turkey (as the US has not had a consulate in Iran since 1979). Apart from filling out many application forms, intensive one-to-one interviews are conducted. There is a two-month clearance process. Only after these procedures may the applicant purchase an airplane ticket.

Coincidentally, on 1 August, the US state department publicly condemned Iran for what the US called a violation of human rights citing the death on 30 July of an Iranian student dissident, Akbar Mohammadi, after a hunger-strike in prison. "We call on the Iranian government to respect the human rights of all Iranian citizens, including students, members of religious minorities, workers and women, and to release those arrested and imprisoned as a consequence of defending universally accepted human rights and freedoms", the department's spokesman Sean McCormack said.

President Bush has on several occasions stated that the US has no issues with the people of Iran, who he says deserve to be ruled by a democratically elected government that protects their human rights. On 15 February 2006, the US state department declared that it was requesting $75 million to create a fund to "reach out to the people of Iran"; this would include "(expanding) our outreach to young Iranians with $5 million for Iranian student education and international visitors programs designed to build bridges between the people of our two nations".

Human rights are fundamentally about the notion of guaranteeing human beings the right to be treated with respect, honour and dignity. Those rights are most obviously infringed when people are tortured, murdered and raped. There are many examples of terrible abuse around the world in recent years, including the fundamental human-rights violations in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. The recent incidents at US airports may be different in precise character from those occurring in such incarceration centres, but in principle they are equally violations of the human rights of those concerned.

Just say no

Many Iranians can tell stories of their own difficult encounters with US immigration in the era of the "war on terror". In my own case, the recent humiliation was the third such experience in the last two years.

The first incident was in September 2004, when I was living in Tehran. I was invited to give presentations at the United Nations and the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, an institute partially funded by the US congress. To obtain the necessary visa, I travelled twice to the US consulate in Dubai. After a clearance process that lasted three months, I was granted a visa. I flew to Frankfurt airport. Just moments before boarding, I heard my name on a loudspeaker requesting I return immediately to the security desk inside the airport.

A security official informed me that my name was on the "no-fly list". Two German policemen took me to a small room, interrogated me, assuming that I was a terrorist. Only after googling me, discovering that I am a journalist, did they grant me permission to fly back to Iran.

I was shocked. I thought the "no-fly list" was for those individuals with dangerous or ambiguous backgrounds. I had a visa, one issued by the US consulate. I couldn't understand how the US could issue a visa, yet not allow me to enter their country. I couldn't imagine that this was simply a case of ineptitude on the part of the US government, a government I had grown up believing was one of the most organised and efficient in the world.

I returned home and ten days later was arrested by the Iranian government's intelligence service for my activities as a journalist and civil-society activist. Under psychological and physical pressure my interrogators demanded I explain how I had managed to obtain a visa to enter the US.

After two months of solitary confinement and torture, I received the highest annual award given by Human Rights Watch. An invitation to be a visiting scholar in the journalism school at UC Berkeley followed. This was the prelude to the second incident.

I went to the US embassy in Istanbul to apply for my visa – I, a "pro-western animal" (as my interrogators had labelled me), an Iranian reformist journalist, a pro-democracy activist, an anti-fundamentalist. A long and thorough interrogation process by the consulate officer ensued. Her tone was sharp, curt, and in my view, insulting. After more than three hours, delving into all matters of personal and family history, I felt tears of humiliation. Her questions and tone of voice crossed the line in me.

I picked up my documents, and told her: "I don't want to go to a country that treats people the way your country treats people". I walked out of the office. To my surprise, the consulate officer later sent me an email, apologising for her behaviour and urging me to return to the consulate. I got my visa and this time my name was not on the "no-fly" list.

The US cannot get away with simultaneously courting and alienating the people of Iran. Rather than differentiating between the Iranian government and the people, the Bush administration tends to treat Iranian civilians as if they are all members of an "axis of evil" club. One of those affected, Saied Bozorqui-Nesbat, writes that the California incident "is a perfect recipe for creating new enemies for the United States". Indeed, the treatment of the Iranians there has created front-page headlines throughout Iran.

The disrespect meted out to Iranians strengthens the anti-American movement led by the most radical and xenophobic elements in the Islamic Republic. Such actions on the part of United States officials serve only to further postpone the democratisation of Iran.

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