The Clearly Uneven Vetting of U.S. Visa Applicants from Iran

More than 40 days have passed since the protests began in Iran in response to the murder of Mahsa Amini. Mahsa Amini was killed on September 16, 2022 by Iran’s morality police for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly.  The passing of forty days is significant in Iranian culture and in Islam: the “chehelom,” or 40th day, marks the date of remembrance after someone’s death.  Videos and reports of protests across Iran to mark the “chehelom” continue to demonstrate that the Iranian people have had enough. Vice President Kamala Harris joined many others in voicing support for the protesters and calling for change.

Over the last 40+ days, hundreds of Iranians have been killed, injured, abused, and terrorized by a regime that continues to violate the basic human rights of its people. The Iranian people have been under siege by this oppressive regime for 43 years. Since 1979, the regime’s actions have resulted in dire consequences for Iranians, including greatly reducing their ability to immigrate to the United States.  Yet somehow, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members and their families appear to live comfortably in the United States without any issue or pushback by the U.S. government.

In January 2017, Donald Trump made one of his first infamous headlines when he signed the Executive Order 13769, better known as the Muslim Ban. Included in the ban were the Iranian people. People of all stripes were rightfully outraged because of the blatant discrimination against more than 1.5 billion people of the Muslim faith.  Sadly though, Iranians were already too familiar with the systematic discrimination and outright prejudice against them within the U.S. visa processing machine: an ever-growing invisible wall has continued to plague Iranians for 43 years.

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranians have had to prove themselves worthy of U.S. visas by going through an extreme vetting process that is above and beyond what other applicants from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) area must endure.  All of that vetting stems from the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and the capture of the 52 U.S. diplomats who became the Islamic Republic’s first set of hostages, enduring 444 days in captivity.

One of the militants who took those U.S. diplomats hostage was Masoumeh Ebtekar who has since served in multiple positions at the Islamic Republic, most recently, as the Vice President for Women and Family Affairs from August 2017 to September 2021.  One of Vice President Ebtekar’s hostages was Barry Rosen, a U.S. diplomat based in Tehran.

In captivity, Mr. Rosen was physically and mentally abused and tortured by Ebtekar and her fellow terrorists on a regular basis.  Naturally, when Barry Rosen found out that that Eisa Hashemi, the adult son of Ebtekar, along with his entire family were living in a luxurious mansion in Southern California on a student visa, Barry wanted to know how Hashemi qualified for this benefit. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians continue to be subjected to extreme vetting and refusals of visas without having any relation to an Iranian government official—how did Eisa Hashemi undergo the extreme vetting set for Iranians and still be granted a student visa?

On behalf of Mr. Rosen and other plaintiffs, including media organizations, we requested the records of Mr. Hashemi from the U.S. government under the Freedom of Information Act to determine how he was issued a U.S. visa.  The government responded to our request with a mostly redacted PDF.  We then filed a lawsuit to reveal the redacted portions of the record, but the federal judge agreed with the State Department and found that Mr. Rosen and other plaintiffs had no standing and dismissed the case: 031136147199.

Over the past four decades, Ebtekar’s hostage taking product line has proven to be a lucrative illicit business model for the Islamic Republic, with apparent impunity.  The collective punishment of all Iranians by the U.S. for Ebtekar’s actions, while sparing her and some of her colleagues, has produced harsh and unfair results for regular Iranians.  For example, our 70+ year old dual citizen Iranian/German grandmother is still waiting on getting an immigrant visa after four years following her visa interview.  Other clients include U.S. citizens unable to reunite with their Iranian husbands: a professor of archeology in his 50’s who served his mandatory military service with IRGC back in 1992 doing clerical work, and a well-respected doctor who also served his mandatory military service as a doctor with IRGC in the 90s. Yet somehow, Ebtekar’s son and family were granted visas to enter the U.S., study here, and live comfortably without issue.

Since the onset of the current revolution in Iran, Iranian Americans have taken note of multiple other “Ebtekars” where the Islamic regime’s operatives and their families have made their way to the U.S.  For example, two of the adult children of Dr. Kobra Khazali, the Director of Cultural Social Programs for Women and Family in the Islamic Republic live in the U.S.  Just a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Khazali compared the young Iranian women spearheading the Iran Revolution and getting murdered for it to “whores and prostitutes” who just wanted to have sex with the IRGC/Sepah guards.  She then threatened the demonstrators with physical harm.

In 1988, the Islamic Republic carried out a massacre at the infamous Evin Prison where thousands of political dissidents were executed.  The Islamic Republic’s then-UN Ambassador, Jaffar Mahallati, told the world that the news of the massacre was a lie. Jaffar Mallahati is now a professor at Oberlin College. The person that ordered the 1988 massacre is the current President of the regime, Ebrahim Raisi, who was recently granted a U.S. visa to attend the UN General Assembly in September 2022 so he could give a speech about “demanding justice” for another IRGC Terrorist, General Qassem Soleimani. This was all while being offered tax-payer secret service protection during his stay in New York.  Needless to say, the IRGC has been on the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organization List since April 2019.

The United States has responded to Iran over the last decade with economic sanctions in response to their brutality and oppressive regime. We have seen innocent people swept up and blocked from rejoining family in the U.S. because of extreme vetting. But we are also seeing the children and families of these government members comfortably living in the West without issue. Why do they get a free pass?

Consular denials of visas to Iranian nationals owing to past military service in the IRGC should be applied equally to the members, agents and family members of the Islamic Republic government itself. It’s time that the US government takes corrective action for how it has applied section 212(a)(3)(B) to Iranian nationals who have been wrongly denied admission to the U.S. based on the so called “terrorism bar” and who have been unable to be reunited with family members in the U.S.  There should be no disparate treatment in how this bar is applied and if current members, agents and family members of the Iranian regime are able to obtain exemptions of the 212a3B bar, the ordinary Iranian national should also enjoy the same protections.

The U.S. government routinely imposes extreme levels of vetting on normal Iranians; a visa applicant who has a distant cousin who worked for a national oil company, parents of U.S. citizens sitting in a multi-year limbo of background checks by virtue of being Iranian, families separated due to mandatory military service with the IRGC in non-combat roles: they are all barred from entering the U.S. That isn’t right or just.

Injustice will continue until the U.S. fully reviews its vetting processes for Iranian nationals and gets it right – find a balance between letting the family members of clearly identifiable terrorists into the U.S. and ensuring that regular Iranian people have an option to come to the U.S. These sanctions must be seen to actually impact those who SHOULD be held to account, not those innocents caught in the middle. The Iranian people deserve better.

by Roujin Mozaffarimehr and Ally Bolour