How the U.S. Ignored Iran’s Reformers

• Mar 1st, 2007 • Category: Works Cites Soroush

The Bush administration, despite President Bush’s vocal call for democracy in Iran, has failed to grant visas to several prominent Iranian pro-democracy activists. Among the Iranians still waiting for a U.S. visa is Abdolkarim Soroush, a philosopher who is widely regarded as the leading intellectual force behind the reformist movement that swept President Mohammed Khatami to power in 1997.

After being tipped by an Iranian source and looking into the issue, I learned that another important figure whose visa request was rejected outright is Ebrahim Yazdi, head of the Freedom Movement of Iran. Despite being under severe pressure from hard-liners aligned with Khatami’s successor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Soroush and Yazdi sought to visit the U.S. in part to take up speaking invitations at prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Stanford universities.

Soroush, who is presently a visiting scholar at the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told me that he applied for his visa at the U.S. embassy in Berlin in June 2006 and did not have any knowledge about why it had not yet been approved. “They did not respond to my e-mails,” he said.

Yazdi, a pharmacist by training, learned that his application for a U.S. visa, which he initially submitted to the U.S. embassy Paris in 2005, was denied. “They talked nonsense with me,” Yazdi told me when I contacted him by phone in Tehran about his interview at the U.S. consulate in Dubai. “They wanted to be sure that I am not going to stay in the U.S. I said, ‘Ma’am, I am a 76-year-old Iranian who has been fighting for 60 years for the cause of freedom. I don’t want to leave my country. I want to visit my children and my 15 grandchildren.’ But they refused to give me a straightforward answer.”

The problems encountered by Soroush and Yazdi are additionally puzzling because both men have been welcome visitors to the U.S. in the past. Soroush, who has been dubbed the “Martin Luther of Islam” for his writings on separating mosque and state, was a visiting professor at Harvard and Princeton University, and a scholar in residence at Yale University between 2000-2005.

Yazdi, whose group’s website says its objective is “to gain freedom, independence and democracy for the Iranian nation on the basis of modern interpretation of Islamic principles,” has a longstanding relationship with the U.S. He acquired a U.S. passport, later relinquished, when he lived in the U.S. between 1956-78 during the rule of the Shah of Iran. After his group joined Ayatullah Khomeini in overthrowing the Shah, he became foreign minister in the first revolutionary government headed by Mehdi Bazargan. Yazdi resigned along with Bazargan over the U.S. embassy hostage crisis, however, and they went on to become two of the important domestic critics of the increasingly radical Islamic regime. The U.S. began granting Yazdi visitor visas in the mid-1980s. His last visit was in 2000, when he gave several university lectures on Iran and Iranian-American relations.

Besides seeing his family in the U.S., Yazdi intended to take up several new speaking invitations. They included a lecture on Islam, Iran and democracy at Stanford’s Iranian Studies Program, and another on the challenge of democracy in the Muslim world at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington. In addition to Harvard, Soroush was invited by an Islamic cultural center in Oakland, Calif.,to give three weeks of lectures on Islam’s role in the modern world, and by the Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion at New York’s Columbia University to give a talk on religion, democracy, civil liberties and pluralism. The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University invited him to give two weeks’ worth of presentations on Islam, democracy and Catholic-Muslim relations.

Asked about the visa problems of Iranian reformists, and specifically about Soroush and Yazdi, a State Department spokesman told TIME foreign affairs correspondent Elaine Shannon: “We give full consideration to requests for visas to travel to the U.S. by persons from all nations, including Iran. Visa records are confidential and we can’t comment on individual cases. In these two situations, however, I can say that we have advised these two gentlemen that we have received or will receive and process applications for visas appropriate for the purposes of their intended travel to the United States. Federal law requires that security reviews be completed before we can issue visas to travelers from designated state sponsors of terrorism, including Iran.”

Reasonable enough, yet that seems an oddly bureaucratic explanation considering the Bush administration’s big rhetoric advocating freedom in Iran. Bush’s democracy-themed inaugural address in 2005, which mentioned freedom 27 times, said America’s mission is “to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.” Less than a year ago, Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice asked Congress to allocate $75 million “for democracy programs” inside Iran. Testifying on the goals of the U.S.’s transformational diplomacy, she stated: “For our part, the United States wishes to reach out to the Iranian people and support their desire to realize their own freedom and to secure their own democratic and human rights.”

It may be that the U.S. government bureaucracy hasn’t caught up with the White House’s freedom agenda for Iran. But several Iranian reformists I spoke with–in Iran and in the U.S.–believed that hard-liners in the Bush administration may be blocking the visa applications for political reasons. Their feeling is that the hard-liners might be doing everything to discourage dialogue with Iranians, even reformists, lest it complicate their their agenda of confronting Iran. They also fear that administration hard-liners may not be interested in giving a platform inside the U.S. to the views of Iranians like Soroush and Yazdi who are dissidents but don’t buy Bush’s confrontational approach to Iran.

The administration has made a notable exception in the case of Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji, who has visited the U.S. twice in the past year. Perhaps it would have been hard to keep Ganji out, however, given the administration’s past public support for Ganji during the six years he spent in prison for challenging the Islamic regime. In testimony about Iran policy before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2005, Under Secretary for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns singled out Ganji “for uncovering the truth.”

–By Scott MacLeod/Cairo


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