By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report    5/2/02

A new anti-terrorism law designed to tighten American borders after the September 11 tragedy actually weakens U.S. security by severing relations with America’s greatest potential Islamic ally in the Middle East – the pro-democratic majority population of Iran. 

Passed by a unanimous vote in both houses of the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Bush on May 14, the law bans non-immigrant citizens from seven countries from entering the United States. The countries are those named by the U.S. State Department as “state sponsors of terrorism” – Iran, Cuba, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea. 

Thousands of Iranian-Americans are protesting the law on the grounds that no Iranian citizen has ever been involved in a terrorist attack on the United States. The law also jeopardizes America’s long-term security because it is weakening ties with political reformers in Iran, the protesters say.  

“We need Iranians to come here so we can educate them,” says Hamid Zangeneh, an economics professor at Widener University in Pennsylvania. “By not allowing Iranian citizens to come into the United States, we are severing relationships with people who might have influence in Iran.”    

About one million people born in Iran now live in the U.S., with the community of Iranian Americans reaching two million when the Persian- speaking children of first-generation immigrants are counted.  

Border Security

Iranian Americans are distinct in several ways from other immigrant groups, according to the 1990 U.S. census.  It is among the most literate immigrant populations, with 84% speaking fluent English, and 46% having a B.A. degree or higher. The median income for the group is $51,000.    

David Rahni, the president of the Iranian-American Anti-Discrimination Council, gathered 17,000 signatures on a petition opposing passage of the legislation, called the “Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002,” or H.R. 3525. Now that the law is passed, the group’s efforts are focusing on amending the law to exempt the close relatives of Iranian American citizens and permanent U.S. residents.  

Iran is classified by the U.S. as a “state sponsor of terrorism” based on the government’s belief that Iran offers financial and military support terrorist groups including the Hizbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Jihad; and that it has been directly involved in incidents such as the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans; and in the seizing last January of the Karine A, a ship carrying weapons intended for the Palestinian Authority, whose procurement the U.S. says was aided by Iran.

Iranian Americans opposed to H.R. 3525 in its present form believe that Iran’s support for pro-Palestinian groups has in recent years been limited to moral support only. Iran’s connection to specific terrorist incidents, they also argue, has also never been factually proven and is based on hearsay.


While no Iranian has ever been implicated in a terrorist act in the United States, many terrorist incidents, including September 11, were carried out by citizens of other Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Yet the citizens of those countries are not covered by the new anti-terrorist travel ban imposed by H.R. 3525.  

“To ostracize certain U.S. citizens simply because they come from a country that the U.S. doesn’t have a healthy relationship with, that seems ludicrous and un-American to us,” Rahni said.  

In recognition of these facts, the new law should be amended in one of several ways, according to the protesters. These might include exempting Iranian nationals; making a special category for close relatives of American citizens; or by allowing the U.S. to scrutinize Iranian citizens more closely, but not to categorically prohibit them from visiting relatives in the U.S.

Most Iranian Americans came to the U.S. after 1979, when a fundamentalist Islamic revolution headed by Ayatollah Khomenei toppled the secular, pro-Western monarchy headed by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. The new  government strictly limited freedom of the press, women’s rights, and career opportunities for professionals and business people, and drove several hundred thousand educated Iranians to seek new lives abroad.

Turning Point

Like many immigrant groups, Iranian Americans have kept a low profile in the United States since arriving in this country. They have focused on establishing their lives and supporting the U.S. government – or at least pragmatically keeping their silence – when disagreeing with the U.S. government’s domestic or foreign policy. Especially, Middle East policy.

Now, however, their anger over how the new anti-terrorism law bans their relatives from visiting the United States may mark a turning point, with  thousands of Iranian Americans refusing for the first time to remain quiet.

When he called Iran an “Axis of Evil” nation, President Bush placed Iranian Americans in an impossible situation and forced them to speak out, Zangeneh said.

“By not being able to interact with our friends and relatives from Iran, we will be ostracized by everyone,” he said. “Now Iranians don’t trust us, and American’s don’t trust us.”

Iran is an Islamic Republic whose constitution guarantees free elections and individual freedoms yet is grounded in the laws of Islam. This inherent contraction plays out in a constant struggle in Iran between a weak executive branch, which is pro-democratic and freely elected, and a strong judiciary branch, which is run by conservative clerics who enforce their views via the much-feared Council of Guardians and by court-mandated arrests and crackdowns.

Lifting Sanctions

Since 1989, a strongly pro-democratic President has been regularly elected in Iran by sizable electoral margins. The current president, Mohammad Ardakani Khatami, was elected in June 2001 with 77% of the vote.

Pro-American feeling surged in Iran after the September 11 attacks, partly because Iranians believed that America would finally start to offer the reformist executive branch of the Iran government more support. Many saw the chance that economic sanctions, which presently ban American trade with Iran, might also be lifted. This is a critical first step in supporting Iran’s democratization and other liberal reforms, many Iranians believe.

These hopes were dashed when President Bush named Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq, as one of three “Axis of Evil” nations seeking to crush the United States.

“That only strengthened the hardliners,” said Susan Akbarpour, the editor of Iran Today Online, based in San Jose, California, and a prominent activist for political reform in Iran.

In the months following Bush’s “Axis of Evil” statement, Iran’s conservative jurists have stepped up a two-year-long crackdown on outspoken reformers and democracy activists in Iranian society.

41 Million Young People

Teachers and student leaders have been rounded up and jailed and two teachers, Ibrahim Ahmadzadeh and Ghassem Zadehmoien, were reportedly killed. This month, three newspapers were added to a list of 20 others that have been shut down over the past two years, with one prominent reformist journalist, Ahmed Zeid-Abadi, sentenced to 23 months in prison.

Some Iranian Americans side with the U.S. government, agreeing that any  form of discourse with such a government amounts to collusion. Yet even this group will be disappointed with the new border-tightening law because Iranian diplomats and government officials, including hardliners against the U.S., are still able to enter the U.S. freely. Meanwhile, average Iranian citizens, who are much more likely to be pro-American, are now banned.

About 41 million of Iran’s total population of 66 million is under the age of 25. These young people, not yet born during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981, are potentially close friends and allies of the U.S.

Yet making them so may require more than amending H.R. 3525.

“Iranians are really asking for a respectful dialog,” Zangeneh says. “They want to be taken seriously, not slapped around, not kicked around, not maligned. It might seem childish for a president or a member of congress, but this is what they are saying – ‘We need to have a courteous relationship based on mutual respect.’ It’s costless and it should be easy to do.”

Copyright @ 2002 The McGill Report

Related Links

H.R. 3525 -- The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002

President Bush Letter Signs H.R. 3525 Into Law

Map of Iran

Iran Today Online

Silicon Iran

The American Iranian Council

Reza Pahlavi Web Site

The Satellite Subversives