Leila Golestaneh Austin, Executive Director, PAAIA
Washington, DC — As Americans of Iranian heritage, we watch the protests of the many brave Iranian citizens with compassion and respect for fearlessly voicing their discontent with the country’s long-standing economic, social, and political challenges. We watch in distress as authorities block communication and social media sites, while carrying out mass arrests, resulting in 22 reported deaths.
As Americans, we prize the universal democratic values of freedom of opinion and expression above all else. As Iranian-Americans, we believe that regardless of one’s political persuasion in a free and open democracy, it is important to support and defend the fundamental rights of any people to peacefully express their grievances. And as the birthplace of our cultural heritage and where we maintain family ties, we feel this even more strongly for those who live in Iran today under grievous conditions.
Even if President Trump’s expression of solidarity with the “great Iranian people” is heartening, his message rings hollow given his administration’s policy of banning the entry of Iranian nationals to the United States in three separate versions of his Travel Ban. This policy makes it clear that democratic values are accessible to a limited and exclusive club that clearly does not include democratically-minded Iranians. As one of the most highly educated and pro-American populations in the Middle East, Iranian nationals are dismayed and upset by a ban that denies hundreds of victims of oppression and family members of US citizens from coming to the United States, the world-wide beacon of freedom and democracy.
Abolishing the Travel Ban also eliminates the Iranian regime’s ability to paint the United States as a belligerent and hostile enemy of the Iranian people. The evidence of how the Ban undermines America’s national interest could not be more clear than when Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, thanked President Trump for re-instating the third version of the ban, claiming that it “showed the real face of America.” More than anything, the Travel Ban feeds the Iranian regime’s anti-American propaganda machine, and unnecessarily punishes the Iranian people.
In addition to removing a flawed policy by dropping the Travel Ban, the Trump administration and others in Washington should make every effort to enhance the free flow of communications within the Iranian nation. Social media tools have become the lifeblood of daily information for Iranian civil society. Members of Congress in the United States can play a critical and constructive role by encouraging the Department of Treasury and Department of State to update media licenses, ensuring that information and communication technologies are readily available to the Iranian people.
Expanding trade exemptions for telecommunications tools in Iran will promote private entrepreneurship, civil society, and better communications among Iranians who already exhibit a high rate of social media and telecommunications usage. Despite the current restrictions in place, Iranians cling desperately to available social media and telecommunications tools to engage each other and the world, proving that the Iranian people want engagement, not authoritarian isolation and pariah state status.
While Iranian protesters are courageously sharing their opinions and voicing their discontent, the United States must hold true to our commitment to democratic values and take policy positions that benefit their cause, rather than ones that harm it. Likewise, Members of Congress should, in bipartisan manner, encourage the President to expedite licenses of communication technologies that enhance the free flow of information and remove the Ban that targets the Iranian people at such a vulnerable time in their brave and determined drive toward a more democratic future.