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
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
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