The global travel restrictions imposed on Iranians are a major blow to their right to engage with the world. The responsibility for overturning these restrictions does not lie only with powerful countries, but more crucially with the Iranian authorities, writes Kourosh Ziabari.
Iran’s former parliament speaker Ali Larijani raises his passport as he registers his candidacy for Iran’s presidential elections in the capital Tehran on May 15, 2021. [Getty]
In today’s irreversibly globalized world, international travel and mobility are not just seen as a privilege, but as a fundamental right that informed and savvy citizens of the 21st century confidently expect from governments.
To a large extent, the power of the passports people hold illustrates their country’s position in the community of nations, the nuances of the respectful treatment they receive while away from home and, in many cases, the limits of their freedoms and prerogatives.
Last October, London-based global citizenship and residency consultancy Henley & Partners released its quarterly directory of the most desirable passports in terms of facilitating international mobility.
In the Henley Passport Index, 199 passports are ranked according to the number of countries they allow their holders to visit without a visa. At the top of the list, Japan, Singapore, Germany and South Korea triumph as the countries with the most powerful passports, giving their citizens the right to travel to more than 190 countries without the need for a visa.
“Yet for Iran, the insignificant credibility of its passport must be attributed to a number of other variables that do not necessarily reflect universally inhibiting immigration codes, but represent self-inflicted wounds”
The registry determined that Iran ranks 107th in the world, tied with Lebanon and Sudan, appearing as a tenuous travel document allowing visa-free travel to just 41 destinations. A cursory look at the list reveals Iran faring worse than crisis-hit South Sudan, Cuba beleaguered by decades of US sanctions, and authoritarian states Eritrea and Turkmenistan.
It stands to reason that global immigration regulations are adapted by high-income countries in the north to contain movements from the south and to guarantee immigration flows from these countries, where people are generally at caught up in a constellation of political, economic and social crises, are shocked.
These prohibitively great-power shaped immigration standards are defensible in the eyes of those setting these guidelines, but ultimately such restrictions speak volumes about the inequalities that have made the gaps between nations unbridgeable in what is supposed to be the age of connectivity.
Yet for Iran, the insignificant credibility of his passport must be attributed to a number of other variables that do not necessarily reflect the universally inhibiting immigration codes, but represent self-inflicted wounds he suffered at because of the policies that have thrown it into isolation.
Besides the fact that the leaders of the Islamic Republic have a strange preference for avoiding global integration, resist joining international organizations and treaties, and are reluctant to open the doors to a country with thousands of years of documented history so that globetrotters can explore its charms first hand, what has made the Iranian passport so fragile is that its clearance has never been a concern.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for overseeing and strengthening the national agenda abroad. But this under-budgeted apparatus, plagued by a shortage of well-trained diplomats and competent experts, has repeatedly failed since 1979 to take initiatives that win the respect of Iranians abroad, present the country as a respectable part of the world order and alleviate the consular and professional challenges faced by Iranians.
The acute flaws in the diplomatic system and the negligence of successive foreign ministers to reinforce the ability of the Iranian passport have created an insoluble dilemma: a young, educated and outward-looking population is increasingly eager to travel the world and to decouple from the isolation hanging over the country, but it’s just stuck.
Ultimately, Iranians have to put up with an array of bureaucratic complexities, long lines outside embassies and long wait times to obtain visas for literally every country. They have long complained of kaleidoscopic discrimination and are treated like second-class citizens at consulates, ports of entry, immigration offices and in public, simply because they do not have an EU travel document. elite.
But little has changed the sad truth that they are deprived of normal mobility, not even like that enjoyed by Singaporeans and Norwegians, but the accesses that people nearby, including Turkey, Georgia, Qatar and the Emirates United Arab Emirates, have to the outside world because their governments have invested in the right priorities.
For many Iranians, visiting Turkey, one of the few countries to have a visa-free agreement with the Islamic Republic, sounds like a quantum leap, and traveling to the borders of Europe and America of the North remains a task of Sisyphus. It is not a question of finances. These are dilemmas.
The government has barely entered into negotiations with its interlocutors, including even its cordial allies, to conclude visa waiver agreements. This is what countries regularly do to enhance the distinction of their passports and make travel more convenient, as well as to project an attractive image of themselves.
Today, Russia enforces a strict visa policy on Iranians – Russia is allegedly Tehran’s “strategic ally” and anchor of its security. Belarus, often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship and a friendly comrade to Tehran, requires Iranian citizens to obtain visas. The same goes for Muslim-majority Algeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Tunisia, Jordan and Tajikistan, which require visas.
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Amid these inconveniences, corrupt practices have sprung up to schedule emergency appointments and expedite the processing of applications, often involving the collusion of embassies, travel agencies and wealthy intermediaries based in Tehran who take advantage of the travel frenzy to make a fortune.
Iranians continue to fight for freedom of movement, grappling with a double whammy of strict travel measures enforced to prevent them, generally considered ‘high-risk citizens’ in the immigration lexicon, from traveling to fashionable borders, and their own government’s incompetence in improving the status quo.
Ironically, the criminal records of Iranian citizens as immigrants and foreign visitors have traditionally been spotless and unblemished, as attested by national security agencies.
According to a 2019 study by the Cato Institute, between 1975 and 2017, foreign terrorism from Iran caused “no casualties” in the United States, while in the same period terrorists from the United Arab Emirates were responsible. of 313 murders and assailants from Saudi Arabia murdered 2,351. people on American soil.
“The tide can be turned. It only depends on the authorities in Tehran realizing that they have a real responsibility to make the change happen”
But even those somewhat spotless credentials, reflecting a consistent pattern of Iranian behavior abroad, have failed to convince world powers to ease their restrictions. The last time a major Western country made such concessions was in 2017, when Serbia dropped its visa requirements for Iranians and, after almost a year, under pressure from the European Union, reinstated the visa regime.
It is incumbent on the government in Tehran to remedy what is apparently a stalemate in the Iranian people’s global reach and connectivity. One of the few occasions when the idea of giving the public’s right to travel a facelift was broached by a politician was during the 2013 presidential campaign, when moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani promised to “reclaim respect for the Iranian passport as president. His two administrations, however, took no action to that effect.
Over the past four decades, the government has nonchalantly set aside the task of integrating Iran into the global context and improving the nation’s image, causing reverence for the Iranian passport.
The mobility drought continues to be a thorn in the side of millions of Iranians who want to step up their external connections and navigate new spaces on the world map, but are unable to do so. The wind can be reversed. It only depends on the Tehran authorities realizing that they have a real responsibility to bring about change.
Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the Iranian correspondent for Fair Observer and Asia Times. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford Fellowship.
Follow him on twitter @KZiabari
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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.