A controversial Congress act will undermine Iran's tourism industry and its ability to attract foreign investment, Kourosh Ziabari writes. The new measure could also violate the nuclear agreement.
The bloody Paris attacks and the heartrending San Bernardino shooting spree – which were ultimately blamed on “Islamist terrorists” – have panicked the United States, and anti-Muslim sentiments are now on a seismic, mind-boggling surge across the country.
Severed pig heads and burnt pages of the Holy Quran are thrown at the doorsteps of mosques in Philadelphia, Austin and elsewhere; Islamic centers are on the receiving end of threatening phone calls while their walls are being spray-painted with racist mottos by the xenophobic vandals; and profiling of Muslims at U.S. airports and removing of Muslims passengers from flights have resurfaced again. Even the Sikhs have been assaulted on the streets, simply because they apparently look like Muslims.
The GOP presidential hopefuls are vying in the race on how to make the most outrageous Islamophobic statement. The multi-billionaire television personality Donald Trump, who is bizarrely running ahead of all the Republican contenders of the 2016 presidential election in the national polls, has distressingly gone so far as to call for the banning of all Muslims from entering the United States. Ben Carson has said he doesn’t like to think of a Muslim president going to the White House. Ted Cruz has professed that “radical Islamic terrorism” is the biggest enemy the U.S. has to wrestle with. Marco Rubio vehemently censured President Obama for making a distinction between the ISIS terrorists and the peaceful Muslims who have long fought for the United States in uniform and sacrificed their lives for their country, been the much liked sport heroes of millions of Americans and served in the community faithfully. Senator Rubio implied that Obama is a cynic who fallaciously believes discrimination is rampant against the Muslims in America.
It’s quite understandable that the American society, and the Western nations in general, are alarmed by the rise of violent atrocities at the hands of relentless terrorists who ostensibly represent an “Islamic State” – while there’s absolutely nothing Islamic in their cruel modus operandi. The seemingly unstoppable growth of ISIS and its day-to-day campaigns of mass killing, beheading, raping, bombing, looting and even destroying the ancient sites, while its fighters shout Allahu Akbar and hold Islamic banners in their hands conceivably frightens the people who experienced the calamities of 9/11 and 7/7. They rightly blame those who promote this malicious ideology of killing and hatred, but when they’re being constantly told that it is Muslims who are responsible for all the evil that exists on Earth and that ISIS is a radical Islamic terror organization, they spontaneously begin to fear all Muslims. Recent opinion polls signify a growing repugnance against Muslims among the majority of American citizens, particularly those who identify with the Republican Party.
However, the hard truth is that Muslims are being scapegoated amid all the uproar that runs through the media about ISIS. Muslims are the major victims of ISIS terrorists themselves, among them the Shiite Muslims whom these fanatics believe they can slaughter and then ascend to heaven directly. They rape the Yezidi women and girls violently, crying Allahu Akbar again; they obviously haven’t read the Quran – and they boast of being an Islamic State – which categorizes “rape” as one of the gravest sins, and perhaps the most unforgivable one, alongside murder.
The majority of noted Muslim leaders, religious authorities and masses of Muslims worldwide have condemned ISIS and distanced themselves from this devious current. Even President Obama has acknowledged that ISIS is practicing a perverted interpretation of Islam.
Against this backdrop, it’s totally incomprehensible why the Iranian people should be among those who’re tormented because ISIS is exploding bombs here and there and butchering innocent people in Beirut, Paris and San Bernardino.
Even by American and European standards, there’s nothing Iran has done to nurture ISIS, magnify it or contribute to its empowerment. The U.S. officials have been able to accuse Iran of supporting the Bashar al-Assad “regime,” but they could never put forward any evidence to hold Iran accountable for buttressing ISIS. There are Islamic countries that have abetted ISIS, including several Arab states whose nationals are fighting in the ranks of ISIS – foreign fighters from 81 countries have joined the so-called Islamic State, but there’s no single Iranian on this list. This menacing group has recruited fanatic, radicalized citizens from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Tunisia, Turkey and UAE, but no Iranian. There have even been people who dared to say Iran is perhaps the only country in the region with a genuine interest in defeating the ISIS terrorists. And you know what happens? The U.S. Congress puts Iran on the list of four countries that you should seriously avoid visiting.
The list, formally known as The Visa Waiver Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act (HR 158), stipulates that the citizens of 38 countries, including 23 member states of the European Union, with which the United States has visa waiver agreements, would be required to apply for a visa at one of the U.S. missions abroad, if they’ve visited Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan since 2011. Iraq and Syria sound okay. They’re in the middle of a chaos and a full-fledged war waged by the Islamic State terrorists. But why Iran? It’s utterly inexplicable to me why Iran should be on this list while the bill was supposedly a response to the Paris tragedy of mid-November, and the San Bernardino shooting, which was categorized as a terrorist attack. The ringleader of Paris shootings and explosions was a Belgian-Moroccan devotee of the ISIS, and the San Bernardino attack was carried out by a Pakistani-American couple. So what’s the role of Iran here?
The whole scenario looks like a fiasco, and to me, a means used by the Congress hardliners to take revenge on Iran for the concessions and sanctions relief it will receive as a result of nuclear talks with the United States. Other than that, there seems to be no link between restraining the perturbing growth of ISIS and passing a bill that would simply serve no other purpose but to destroy Iran’s tourism sector, undermine its financial ties with the outside world and maybe violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the outcome of some two years of breathtaking, intensive talks between Iran and the six world powers.
The Congress act, which was just signed into law by President Obama, means that the citizens of these 38 countries should choose: tourism and business in Iran or unrestricted traveling to the United States. If they travel to Iran, then they need to embrace the hardships of going through the lengthy process of applying for a U.S. visa, and even risk facing the routine known as the Security Advisory Opinion, or administrative processing, which means they’ll have to wait for long periods to get a U.S. visa after additional security and intelligence inspections.
“Polls signify a growing repugnance against Muslims among the majority of American citizens”
Iran’s major trade partners in the European Union are among these 38 countries: France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Moreover, there are countries as Japan and South Korea that have historically maintained close and robust trade and cultural ties with Iran. Now, with the enactment of this law, nationals of these countries might prefer not to endanger their chances of traveling to the United States freely for the sake of visiting Iran. The same holds true for the businesspeople from these countries who would rather shun away from Iran’s market, that is just emerging from the ashes of more than 12 years of biting economic sanctions, and retain their option of doing trade with the world’s largest economic powerhouse.
This bill not only affects thousands of Iranian-Americans, British-Iranians and Iranian-Australians who hold two passports, but curbs many investment opportunities for Iran’s energy, transportation and industrial sectors and doesn’t fall short of violating the JCPOA even before it’s fully implemented by all the interlocutors and involved parties.
Iran’s tourism industry had just begun to experience a booming growth following the July 14 announcement of the nuclear deal with the six world powers, including the United States. Around 5 million tourists visited Iran since the beginning of 2015. The number could hardly exceed 500,000 tourists a year when President Ahmadinejad was in power. But now, this positive development could be reversed.
I think to fight ISIS and prevent such brutalities as the Paris attacks or San Bernardino massacre, the United States government is capable of addressing the concern of violent extremism and terrorism better by holding its real supporters, patrons and funders to account. Punishing the people that have gone through so many adversities to convince their government to negotiate with six world powers in good faith is not the way to fight terrorism. It simply breeds contempt and a feeling of repression among those who’re targeted wrongly: in this case, the people of Iran.
The HR 158 act is going to seriously undermine the chances of Iran-U.S. rapprochement. We have a moderate, reform-minded president in Iran, who receives tons of offensive, insulting responses from the influential hardliners at home whenever he hints at the possibility of Iran-U.S. reconciliation. He has even implied that the U.S. embassy in Tehran might be opened one day, and that this hostility cannot be maintained forever – publicly talking about the minutest apertures for relations with the United States would be considered a crime in Iran some two decades ago.