In late January, the United States began implementing changes to the Visa Waiver Program and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 (VWP, H.R.158). Under the act, travelers who are nationals of, and have traveled to, or been present in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria on or after March 1, 2011 are no longer eligible to travel or be admitted to the United States. There are nuances and exceptions.
Immediately, the Iranian regime began protesting the law as a punitive measure targeting Iranian Americans, about whose interests it is inexplicably worried. Tehran’s sudden concern is in reality an attempt to understate the scope of its intelligence operations in the West and to hide their long-term negative implications for Americans and Iranians.
There is no ambiguity in the law. There is, however, plenty of flexibility for genuine travelers.Individuals can still apply for a visa using the regular immigration process. Those needing a U.S. visa for urgent business, medical, or humanitarian travel, will get expedited service. And the Secretary of Homeland Security can waive the visa restrictions if he/she concludes that such a waiver is in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States.
The law’s naysayers would rather ignore very real concerns that Iranian intelligence agents are crawling among us. In addition to the failed attempt on the life of the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, instances of Iranian government espionage have been well documented. On Nov16, 2003, NYPD officers on a subway train observed two men filming the train tracks. The men, who initially claimed diplomatic immunity, were security guards at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations.
In May 2004, despite warnings from the State Department, two more Iranian Mission security guards were observed videotaping infrastructure, public transportation and other New York City landmarks. A month later, the guards were apparently expelled by the United States, for “engaging in activities that were not consistent with their duties.”
There is more. In May 2005, individuals “associated with the Government of Iran” were interviewed by NYPD after someone reported their suspicious behavior. Ostensibly on a sightseeing cruise, they were seemingly photographing and filming city landmarks such as the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges while “speaking on their cellphones in an unusual manner.” One worked at the Iranian Mission, while the other five had diplomatic immunity and were working for the Iranian government.
In September 2008, during the U.N. General Assembly, several members of the Iranian delegation were seen taking photos of railroad tracks inside Grand Central Station. In September 2010, again during the U.N. General Assembly, federal marshals reported suspicious behavior at the Wall Street Heliport, where individuals were seen taking “still photos and videotaping the water line and structural area of the heliport landing pad” from a nearby parking lot. The suspects produced press cards showing that they worked for Iran Broadcasting Company.
Iranian dissidents based outside Iran are frequent targets. Iran’s predatory and historically violent government has repeatedly used its foreign agents to assassinate and intimidate its political opponents. The list of Iranian regime sponsored assassinations in Europe and beyond is long and painful. Earlier this year, federal authorities in Germany arrested two Iranian intelligence agents for engaging in espionage and intelligence gathering on the main Iranian opposition movement, the Mujahedin-e Khalq.
Less notable but no less threatening examples may go unreported. In September 2010, in the company of a few dozen men, women and children, I was peacefully protesting outside U.N. Headquarters against Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s presence at the U.N. We were approached, filmed, and harassed verbally by Persian speaking persons. Noticing our discomfort, NYPD officers quickly intervened and assertively dispersed the intimidating snoopers. Such encounters are common at many Iranian opposition rallies in Europe and the U.S.
Harmless right? Not when our images are posted on Iranian intelligence sites and when news comes from Iran of our family members being harassed by the ministry of intelligence. Yes, the dictators in Tehran habitually intimidate Iranians abroad while also spying on journalists, governments, and other assets.
The scope of the Iranian threat is not yet fully addressed by any U.S. policy on Iran. But Congress should be applauded for its efforts to curtail the mullahs’ free access to the U.S., and its resources. And for trying to protect the Iranian-Americans who oppose the religious zealots in Iran.
Sadeghpour is the political director of the Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIACUS).