Paul Pillar

Iran and the Misdirected New Visa Rules

The Obama administration has expressed its intention to make a needed correction, albeit only a partial one, to a badly flawed and misdirected piece of legislation that was an emotional response to fears about terrorism and that will do little or nothing to achieve its stated objective. The legislation, which was a rider on an omnibus spending bill that the president signed into law last Friday, selectively reverses part of the visa waiver program under which citizens of some countries do not need to go through the time-consuming process of obtaining a visa before visiting the United States for tourism or business. Iran is not one of those countries, but its economic interests will be indirectly affected. Secretary of State Kerry has told Iran in a letter to the Iranian foreign minister that the administration will use its waiver authority and other lawful tools to prevent the new visa rules from contradicting the sanctions-relief provisions of the recent agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program.

About the only good thing about the new legislation is that it implicitly recognizes that the earlier hysteria over refugees and the fear of terrorists in their midst was misplaced. None of the known foreign terrorists who have entered the United States came here as refugees. But then one has to note immediately that neither were any of those terrorists kept out by having to apply for a visa. This is true of, among others, the woman involved in the San Bernardino shootings, the incident that probably has contributed more than any other to the current emotions and fears in the United States about terrorism.

The visa law is another of the measures that get implemented from time to time as a pendulum of public emotion swings back and forth according to how long it has been since the last scary terrorist incident. If such an incident is recent, then politicians rush to enact measures in the name of security even if they compromise other values such as civil liberties or equal treatment under the law. As more time goes by without an incident, values such as privacy and free movement get reasserted. The result is the same sort of pendulum-swinging inconsistency that we also see with the political treatment of surveillance and collection of communication data.

Even if visa applications had shown themselves to be a much better means to screen out terrorists than they in fact have been, the new legislation is aiming in the wrong direction. The measure removes visa-free travel to the United States for people who have visited, or have citizenship in (which might be in addition to U.S. citizenship) Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria. To see how misdirected this list is, we can remind ourselves of where the 9/11 hijackers came from. Fifteen of them were from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates, and one each from Egypt and Lebanon. Both of the San Bernardino shooters had family origins in Pakistan, and the woman—the one who was not a U.S. citizen—evidently had spent radicalizing time in Saudi Arabia. Thomas Erdbrink, in an article on the measure in the New York Times, appropriately remarks, “Precisely why Iran was included on the list is unclear, since it is a foe of the Islamic State, the militant extremist group accused of organizing or fomenting the attacks” that underlie the current fears.

Perhaps one could try to construct a rationale based on the official list of state sponsors of terrorism, with the addition of Iraq because that is a home of the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. But state sponsorship of terrorism is not the problem involved here. The pattern of past terrorists coming from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or the UAE—none of which are on the list—has much less to do with any direct sponsorship of terrorism by governments than with radicalizing influences found within the societies in those countries. Besides, the U.S. list of state sponsors has long been a politically corrupted statement in which countries get moved on or off the list for reasons that have little or nothing to do with terrorism. Cuba, for example, was removed from the list only this year, as an accompaniment to the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States, even though it had been many years since Cuba had done anything that could plausibly be described as sponsorship of terrorism. Iran no longer engages in the sort of extraterritorial activities that once legitimately earned it a spot on the list; the rationale for keeping it there has to do mainly with Iran's relations with certain groups that are on what Washington considers to be the wrong side of certain regional conflicts and that certainly have no monopoly on the use of terrorism related to those conflicts.