Congress’ Off-Point Iran-Bashing

The U.S. Congress, still in thrall to Israeli leaders and the neocons, cited Islamic State terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on travel to Iran even though Iran has nothing to with ISIS or other Sunni jihadists, unlike Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states that were left off the list, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

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 President Obama signed into law a week ago 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.

An Iranian man holding a photo of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

An Iranian man holding a photo of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

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.

Given how reciprocity works in the waiving of visa requirements, the impact of the new law will be felt well beyond the particular groups directly named in the legislation. Because European citizens who have traveled to one of the named countries, or who also hold citizenship with one of those countries, will lose their visa-free privilege to travel to the United States, European governments can be expected to withdraw the corresponding privilege from U.S. citizens who fall in the same categories.

That means U.S. citizens with family ties to Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria who may have traveled there to visit with relatives will face visa requirements that their fellow citizens do not. And that in effect means different treatment of different U.S. citizens because of their ethnic backgrounds.

Then there is the issue of possibly violating the nuclear agreement with Iran. It is quite likely that, unless the U.S. administration can use its authorities to implement the law in a way that will negate this effect, many European and Asian business people will eschew travel to Iran, notwithstanding the attractiveness of potential business deals there, if such travel would mean losing their current ability to travel visa-free to the United States and thereby impairing their ability to reach even bigger deals here.

This effect would occur even without the reciprocity factor kicking in. The economic implications for Iran, for which the conclusion of deals with foreign business interests are an important part of its hopes for economic recovery, are serious.

The specific provision in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, i.e. the Iran nuclear agreement, in question is the obligation of the United States and the Europeans to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.”

A rationale, of course, for contending that the new law does not violate this obligation is that the intention of the new law is protection from terrorism, not the infliction of damage on trade and economic relations. But then that leads to the issue of why Iran was placed on the very short list of countries in the law even though there is no valid reason to believe there would be any association between prior travel to Iran and a greater chance of being a terrorist, and especially a greater chance than those who have traveled to many other countries not on the list.

The answer to the question Erdbrink raises is that Iran-bashing is still politically very much in vogue in Washington, just as it was in the years leading up to negotiation of the JCPOA and especially while the agreement was being negotiated. The stab at Iran in the visa legislation is another step in efforts to keep Iran isolated and economically crippled. The Iranians thus have a valid point about violation of the JCPOA.

This in turn raises the broader issue of the future of the nuclear agreement and how its enemies might yet destroy it. So far Iran has accumulated a strong record of compliance, not just with the JCPOA but with the preliminary agreement that preceded it, which means that the compliance record is already more than two years long.

Iran is moving with dispatch to fulfill its remaining obligations under the JCPOA in terms of dismantling infrastructure, reducing stockpiles, and so forth. The Iranian supreme leader has repeatedly given every indication that while he shares with Iran’s hardliners a concern about what a broader relationship with the West, with all the infusion of culture and ideas this would entail, will mean for the Islamic Republic, he will not let the hardliners kill the nuclear agreement itself.

One cannot speak with as much assurance about hardliners on our own side, which is where violations of the agreement are more likely to come from. The political forces in Washington, heavily influenced by another foreign government, that devoted enormous effort attempting to kill the agreement while its approval in Congress was still in the balance have not given up. They are still looking for ways to kill the agreement even after adoption.

One of the tactics for trying to do so is to play up Iranian activity in other areas. Tests of ballistic missiles has been one such area, even though such tests have nothing to do with obligations under the nuclear agreement, Iran lives in a neighborhood where, especially given its experience being on the receiving end of missile salvos during the Iran-Iraq war, Iranian ballistic missiles will be an unavoidable reality, and as long as the nuclear agreement remains in force there will never be any nuclear warhead on any Iranian missile.

At least as large a tactic for opponents of the agreement will be to push for measures by the United States, especially economic sanctions or steps that, like the visa matter, also have damaging economic effects, that go so far in violating at least the spirit if not the letter of the agreement that at some point the Iranians will be so fed up that they will declare the accord null and void.

The Obama administration, if it does whatever it lawfully can do to prevent opponents from getting to that point, will be acting on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation and on behalf of U.S. security interests.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

12 comments for “Congress’ Off-Point Iran-Bashing

  1. Iranian Expat
    January 1, 2016 at 21:16

    “Iran no longer engages in the sort of extraterritorial activities that once legitimately earned it a spot on the list”.

    What terroristic activities are you referring to? Or are you just speaking out of your ass?

  2. Andrew Nichols
    December 29, 2015 at 21:21

    The stab at Iran in the visa legislation is another step in efforts to keep Iran isolated and economically crippled.

    It’s self defeating stupidity of course as the P5 are just getting on with making friends with Iran. The only losers if the Israel owned w..kers in your congress and senate continue with their juvenile anti Iran stuff will be US business who will lose their opportunities being snapped up by countries with mature people in their govts.

  3. Brian
    December 29, 2015 at 03:20

    The whole Iran nuclear deal is a farcircal charade. It was set up to fail. Regime
    change is still the name of the game. It gives the actors space to extend and pretend the hollywood script with twist and turns to the inevitably denouement of which way to Persia.Until the illegal criminal state of israel is foreclosed on and sent to the dustbin of history the rest of humanity will be in its crosshairs. Zionism is the original fascist ideology married to neo cons whose heritage is Nazism.

  4. Mark Thomason
    December 28, 2015 at 13:28

    Israel’s rivalry with Iran was always the point. They invented the “evidence” about nuclear matters such as the laptop to “support” the outcome they wanted, just as the same people did for the Iraq War.

    This is not missing the point, this is admitting what was the real point all along. Iran is the main nation in the region that constrains Israel, and so it must be destroyed. Once it is gone, then the Saudis would likely be next.

    The point is to keep the region a desert around the Villa that is Israel. It is the only way to protect a tiny nation from a region that outnumbers it about 60:1.

    • rosemerry
      December 28, 2015 at 17:44

      Israel has NOT always considered Iran an enemy, and Iran has insisted that it, like every other country in the region, wants a nuke-free zone ie Israel is the only offender.
      As for the fearmongering “Israel. It is the only way to protect a tiny nation from a region that outnumbers it about 60:1.” Israel chooses to be aggressive and refuses to accept peace offered by all the “enemies” in the Plan from 2002 , still on the table. Israel is hardly a poor victim!! It is in no military danger, any more than the USA is from “terrorists”.

    • Harry Shade
      December 28, 2015 at 18:50

      It is amazing how the writer bends backward in order not to mention Israel’s role and influence in Washington’s anti-Iranian policies.

  5. Dano bivins
    December 27, 2015 at 14:22

    It’s too bad that president Obama is not a strong, informed leader on foreign policy.
    It’s too bad that he doesn’t throw his weight around with the military.
    He’s been competant with domestic policy, but too unwilling to make enemies in Congress and the military staff, even tho’ he had nothing to lose in doing so and everything to gain.
    Now Iran is a wasted asset, Iraq gave birth to a civil uprising from a corrupt anti-Sunni, U.S. sponsored govt. that fostered the growth of ISIS, and Russia and China are reaching across the table and snatching chicken wings off our plate.
    I hope Bernie is stronger, and not overly accomodating to the neocons.

  6. Peter Loeb
    December 27, 2015 at 07:17


    It is not difficult to figure out that the US will
    violate its Iran agreement (JCPOA) which was
    for Iran’s military limitations for lifting of sanctions.

    It does not appear that the US will lift any sanctions.
    I have noted this in previous comments in this

    There is no committee or commission planning this lifting
    of sanctions, no planning of the announcement of
    any elimination ofsanctions.

    Soon the US and West will be in its violation by design.

    As one Congressman shouted, “Why should we let Iran
    unilaterally make demands…?” It is evidently completely
    forgotten that there was an agreement between our
    two nations and this agreement was approved by

    (Perhaps the Majority Leader, and the Speaker are intending
    to stand with the President in announcing the lifting of
    the sanctions to which they have already agreed!)

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • J'hon Doe II
      December 27, 2015 at 10:40

      Peter Loeb — “It is not difficult to figure out that the US will violate its Iran agreement”

      When the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ took place, neocons, like [John] Bolton, saw in it an opportunity, but one that was difficult to discern.

      Unable to affect much change in the region, as they once envisioned under the leadership of the likes of Richard Perle and his Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the neocons mounted a strategy predicated mostly on discrediting their administration’s lack of strategy.

      In a sense the ‘Arab Spring’ invigorated the neocons, but also reminded them of their political impotence. Gone were the days of concocting foreign policies from neo-conservative think tanks such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the Center for Security Policy (CSP) and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), of which, among others, Perle is an active member.

      In fact, Perle is quite a cherished member of the American Enterprise Institute, where Bolton often mounts his occasional articles in mainstream US media, offering a ‘vision’ regarding how to take on Iran, how to reform Arab states and how to redraw the map of the Middle East in ways that are conducive to US foreign policy interests.

      excerpt from —

  7. Mark
    December 26, 2015 at 21:38

    Thank you for the refreshing read. It’s good to see and hear that there is some truth in our media today about the realities of what’s out there. Unfortunately, Iran has gotten the worst rap simply because it’s the easiest target for the heavily influenced members of congress. Otherwise, Iranians are the most educated and open minded peoples in all of middle-east.

  8. J'hon Doe II
    December 26, 2015 at 20:51

    A perpetual (permanent) historical strand…

    Presenting the men from JINSA & CPA

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