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What's Behind Iran's Muted Official Criticism of Revised Travel Ban?

FILE -Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) and deputy Foreign Minister for European and American Affairs Majid Takht-Ravanchi (L) listen during a meeting with journalists in Tehran.
FILE -Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) and deputy Foreign Minister for European and American Affairs Majid Takht-Ravanchi (L) listen during a meeting with journalists in Tehran.

Iran has given a muted response to a revised U.S. immigration policy that temporarily bars entry to most Iranians, with a junior Iranian official criticizing it as the product of a disorganized U.S. foreign policy.

Iranian state media quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Takht Ravanchi as telling reporters on Tuesday that Tehran “rejects” the new U.S. travel order, signed by President Donald Trump a day earlier.

The order bars most citizens of Iran and five other Muslim-majority nations from traveling to the U.S. for 90 days beginning March 16, because of what U.S. officials say is the inability of those nations to adequately screen their travelers to weed out potential terrorists. The measure is a more limited version of an initial travel ban signed by Trump in January but suspended within days by a U.S. court due to legal challenges from critics who see both versions as an unconstitutional entry ban on Muslims. The initial ban included a seventh predominantly Muslim nation, Iraq, which was removed in the revised order.

A 'shaky' proposition?

In comments published by Iran’s Fars and ISNA news agencies, Takht Ravanchi said the new U.S. travel restrictions have a “shaky” basis and reflect Trump's poor understanding of foreign policy. He also said Iran’s response to the previous travel ban remains in effect and there is no need for new action.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denounced Trump’s initial travel order as an “insult” to Iran and the Islamic world.

He also said Iran would respond by no longer issuing visas to U.S. citizens while making exceptions in certain cases. In one such exception, Iran allowed the U.S. men’s wresting team to compete in last month’s Freestyle World Cup in the western Iranian city of Kermanshah, where the Americans lost to the Iranian national team in the final. No information was available on how many other exceptions have been made or how many U.S. citizens have been denied Iranian visas since Javad Zarif announced the retaliatory move on January 31.

Iran observer Mohsen Milani, a politics professor at the University of South Florida, sees Tehran’s reaction to the latest U.S. travel order as cautious.

“The Iranian deputy foreign minister’s remarks indicate that he thinks it is premature to determine the direction of U.S. foreign policy,” Milani told VOA Persian. He said it appears that the Iranian government wants to see what happens in the three months the limited travel ban is in effect – whether it becomes permanent, what happens to U.S. policy on the Iran nuclear deal and whether Washington designates Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. “Depending on those U.S. policy decisions, Iran will determine what to do about visas for Americans and what exemptions to give them,” Milani said.

Seeking an advantage

Behind Iran’s public display of caution, Iranian conservative figures may see political benefits in the Trump administration’s persistence with the travel restrictions, Milani believes. “Iranian hardliners, especially in the run up to May’s presidential election, will use the ban to reinforce the same allegation that they have made all along – that the U.S. is the enemy of Iran,” he said. “There also are hardline elements in Iran’s power structure that want to minimize American influence in the country – they probably also will welcome the ban on Iranians visiting the U.S.”

In examining Iran’s muted official criticism of the U.S. travel order, Milani also sees a deep disappointment in the U.S. position among Iranian moderates. “Those elements of the power system won’t be happy because the U.S. is one of the most favored travel destinations for Iranians of all walks of life including many who work for the government and have family members living in America,” he said. “The U.S. also is by far the most popular destination for young Iranians who want to pursue higher education abroad, based on my conversations with Iranian students, including those who want to attend my university. For them, the U.S. ban is a major setback.”

Iranians opine online

On Instagram, user amir123987yser criticized the U.S. move, asking: “why are Iranians banned from traveling to the U.S. when they do not engage in terrorism, in contrast to Saudi Arabia” which is not on the banned list but whose citizens were involved in the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Another critic, Facebook user Mehdi Beirami, commented on VOA Persian’s live video of the U.S. announcement, vowing that he will not travel to the United States or fly with U.S. airlines even though they are cheaper than others, and will not buy any American products “for the rest of my life.”

Other Iranian social media users turned their ire toward the Iranian government rather than the U.S. Instagram user abbaa0912 said Iranians have no right to be angry at the United States because the Iranian government promotes the burning of U.S. flags at state-sanctioned rallies. In a similar Instagram comment, user najibi.spidh said she thinks the U.S. decision to remove Iraq from the banned list “means Iraq is better than us, because they don’t chant ‘Down with USA’” – a popular slogan at anti-U.S. rallies in Iran.

Afshar Sigarchi of VOA’s Persian service contributed to this report.