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Can Obama Keep His Promise to Iran’s Youth?

The early verdict on the new Iran sanctions is that even the “smart” sanctions have proven to be, well, dumb. Instead of targeting Iranian government officials connected to the nuclear program or who are complicit in human rights abuses, the new sanctions are punishing young Iranians who have been the greatest allies of democracy, human rights, and accountability in Iran.

Late last week, it was revealed that young Iranians looking to attend college abroad are now facing serious impediments because of new sanctions. The Educational Testing Service–the US-based company that provides standardized tests necessary to apply for college, like the GRE and the TOEFL–announced that it was suspending tests for hopeful students in Iran in order to comply with recently passed UN sanctions.

Back in March, President Obama recorded a statement to Iran for Norooz–the Iranian New Year–in which he promised to “sustain our commitment to a more hopeful future for the Iranian people,” which he said would include “increasing opportunities for educational exchanges so that Iranian students can come to our colleges and universities…”

But with the announcement that standardized testing has been suspended in Iran due to sanctions, President Obama has failed to live up to that commitment.

This President claimed that he could walk and chew gum at the same time. But in placing “pressure” at the center of his Iran policy, every other element of the President’s Iran strategy is being subsumed by a singular focus on punitive actions, including the President’s “outstretched hand” promises to the critical demographic of Iranian youth.

For those keeping score, the UN passed multilateral sanctions against Iran on June 9, which were then followed by more stringent, unilateral sanctions passed by Congress and signed into law by the President on July 1.

In the weeks that have passed, Iranian civilian jets have been denied access to European airports and, because Congress’ sanctions specifically forbid companies from providing jet fuel to Iran, Iranian passenger planes are struggling to find ways to refuel, doubling the cost of travel for Iranians. Meanwhile, many of the same Iranians who were taking part in protests and fighting brutal government repression last year are now feeling the crunch of sanctions as the prices for most goods rise steeply.

And now, young Iranians who want to travel the world and study in universities in America and Europe are finding that US-led sanctions are denying them that opportunity.

President Obama seems to understand to the importance of connecting Iran’s youth to the world, given that he has placed an emphasis in his outreach efforts on student exchanges and opening up the Internet. Iran is a country of young people–60% of Iranians are under thirty. All of these youth were born after 1979, post-Islamic Revolution, post-hostage crisis, and many even post-Khomeini. They have only lived under the broken promises of the Revolution and yearn for greater rights, more opportunities to express themselves, and increased interaction with the outside world. They are not moved by the Iranian government’s propaganda and don’t find relevance in the anti-Americanism that many in Iran’s government claim as its raison d’être.

Young Iranians hold the greatest hope for a democratic Iran that has positive relations with the US and its neighbors. But by punishing these young Iranians and providing reasons to resent and distrust America, we play into the hands of those in Iran’s government who are more comfortable with isolated, dejected young population than with a vibrant youth that is connected to the outside world and adamant about their rights and aspirations.

President Obama isn’t the only one who understands the importance and power of Iran’s youth. Ahmadinejad’s government is increasingly exerting pressure on young Iranians, a continuation of the crackdowns at university campuses that has been central to Iran’s efforts to suppress dissent over the years. There are instances of increasing cultural repression–such the policing of haircuts and nail polish, and new restrictions on movies and music. There are also expanding attempts to infiltrate and influence young Iranians through schools and universities, including a recent announcement that the government would be dispatching clerics to schools this fall to counter Western influence in classrooms.

Clearly Iran’s government understands that Iran’s young people are the locus for change in Iran. But the US will only alienate these young people by telling them they can’t study in America or even take the GRE.

Obama Administration officials said for months that they only sought sanctions that would punish Iran’s government, not its people. But it’s unclear if any actions were actually taken in this regard. Sanctions are rife with unintended consequences–just look at how US sanctions last June blocked American communication software from being legally available in Iran, even as Iranians depended on Internet communication tools to broadcast their protests to the outside world. Those sanctions have thankfully been repealed, but not until the damage had already been done.

President Obama may not have intended to ban Iranian students from studying abroad. But until he reconciles his stated intentions towards the Iranian people with his Administration’s prioritization of pressure, a pattern of contradictions will continue to emerge between what the President promises on Iran and what policies are actually being pursued.

Urge President Obama to keep his promise to Iranian students

This post originally appeared at the Huffington Post.

  • 11 June 2010
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • 3 Comments
  • Iranian Youth

Michael Rubin Wants to Let Iran Decide US Immigration Policy

Michael Rubin, writing at the Corner this week, took half a second to criticize NIAC’s work on expanding opportunities for Iranian students who want to come study in the US.  I say half a second because Rubin doesn’t seem to have actually read the article we wrote, having missed the point of it entirely.

According to Rubin, the US should not expand the number or types of visas offered to Iranian students without demanding parity from Iran. “It would be more productive if the White House, Senate, and State Department” would make US visa policy for Iran mirror Iran’s visa policy for Americans, he says.

I, for one, was surprised Michael Rubin — one of the most vehemently anti-Iran people in all of Washington — would actually suggest that American visa policy should be dictated by Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.

Working at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, Rubin shouldn’t take lightly the idea of handing over American immigration policy to Iran.

I don’t think he’s going to win many friends that way — at least not outside of Ahmadinejad’s inner-circle.

What’s more, Rubin clearly doesn’t understand what NIAC and thousands of other Iranian-Americans have called for. Providing multi-entry visas does not affect the control of the visa interviews, as Rubin suggested (although it was a nice touch when he implied that Iranians coming to the US might be terrorists).  Really, he’s just opposed to the US doing anything that he views as a concession to Iran or its people.

But that’s precisely the problem: in Rubin’s view, helping the Iranian people is the same as helping the Iranian government. Forget that millions of Iranians stood up to protest against the government last year — Rubin simply can’t distinguish the Iranian people from the regime he so despises.

Sure, he shed some crocodile tears during the post-election crackdown last year, but now that protesters aren’t being killed in the streets he’s fallen back into his old habits again.  And one of those habits is opposing any measure that could help ease the life of ordinary Iranians.

The fact is, Rubin’s criticism of our student visas policy doesn’t have anything to do with the substance of our plan.  That’s obvious because there’s no “there” there.

Iranian students who want to come to the US have to come to grips with the reality that, once they arrive here, they can’t leave until graduation. The single-entry policy for Iranians means they have no choice but to miss out on academic conferences or other opportunities abroad; it means they’ll be unable to visit their homes for two, four, six years or more; and it means that they will be unable to return home in the event of some tragic family emergency.  We at NIAC have spoken directly with a student in Virginia who couldn’t attend his father’s funeral because he couldn’t obtain a return visa.

These are good kids we’re talking about here — many are destined for successful careers as engineers, doctors, or lawyers — and many of them are more than willing to jump through as many hoops and security checks as it takes just to be able to have the option of going home once or twice during their six-year PhD programs.  So, despite what Mr. Rubin says, no one is talking about undercutting control mechanisms in our immigration process.

What we’re talking about is making a small but significant overture to the youth of Iran — the future of Iran — to give them an opportunity to live and study here in the United States without forcing them to choose between an education and their family.   We’re talking about distinguishing between Iranians and the Iranian government.  We’re talking about doing something decent for the Iranian people.

In fact, President Obama called for more Iranian students to come to the US just a few months ago. The multi-entry visa will help make the President’s promise a reality.

No wonder Michael Rubin didn’t get it.

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Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.

Sincerely,

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