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US Leaves Unanswered Questions About Entry Ban on Iranian Officials, Family Members 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference at the Palace Hotel on the sidelines of the 74th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sept. 26, 2019.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference at the Palace Hotel on the sidelines of the 74th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sept. 26, 2019.

This article originated in VOA's Persian service. VOA Persian's Katherine Ahn contributed.

The Trump administration has provided few additional details of a newly announced entry ban on Iran's senior officials and their family members, leaving unanswered questions about whom it will affect.

President Donald Trump declared the entry ban on Wednesday via a proclamation ordering U.S. authorities to "restrict and suspend" the ability of "senior government officials of Iran and their immediate family members" to enter the U.S. as immigrants or nonimmigrants. It was his latest move in what he has called a "maximum pressure" campaign to pressure Iran to end perceived malign behaviors.

In a Thursday statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered one new detail about the proclamation, saying it was targeted at "designated" senior Iranian officials. That refers to officials who have been placed by the U.S. government on its list of Specially Designated Nationals, whose assets under U.S. jurisdiction are blocked and whom Americans are generally prohibited from dealing with.

'No more'

"For years, Iranian regime elites have shouted, ‘Death to America.' Meanwhile, their relatives have come here to live and to work. No more," Pompeo said in remarks to reporters in New York.

In a separate media appearance in New York, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook responded to a question about who is on the list of banned Iranian officials by noting that Tehran makes regular personnel changes among its government ministers and military leaders, including those of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, designated by the U.S. as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in April.

FILE - U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook speaks to VOA Persian at the State Department in Washington, May 9, 2019.
FILE - U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook speaks to VOA Persian at the State Department in Washington, May 9, 2019.

"We will always be updating and renewing this list to ensure that the senior regime officials and their family members are not able to travel to the United States," Hook said.

But neither Hook nor Pompeo elaborated on which Iranian officials and their family members would be denied entry and who would be granted exemptions allowed by Trump's proclamation.

Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) research director David Adesnik told VOA Persian there were several unanswered questions about the entry ban, including "who exactly is considered a ‘senior’ official, and does ‘immediate family’ only mean siblings, parents and children."

In a Thursday news conference on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani criticized the U.S. entry ban but also appeared to dismiss it as irrelevant.

"Iranian officials have no desire to travel to America. We only come here for U.N. events and should not be banned by America [for doing so]," Rouhani said. The Trump administration granted Rouhani and his delegation visas to attend the U.N. event, under its obligations as host of the world body, while also tightly restricting their movements within New York.

The entry ban is likely to have a bigger impact on senior Iranian officials' children who are among what the State Department has said are "thousands" of Iranian students studying in the U.S. each year.

Three categories

Trump's proclamation said the entry ban would not apply to Iranians in three categories: lawful U.S. permanent residents; people already granted asylum and refugee status by the U.S. or deemed to be at risk of torture if deported; and people whose entry could benefit U.S. interests and law enforcement objectives. The document did not say anything about Iranians on student visas in the U.S.

A VOA Persian request for comment about how the entry ban would affect such students went unanswered by late Thursday.

In an October 2018 op-ed published by The Washington Times, FDD senior Iran analyst Tzvi Kahn identified several children of senior Iranian officials as being enrolled in U.S. universities. He said they included Fatemeh Ardeshir-Larijani, the daughter of Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani; Eissa Hashemi, the son of Iranian Vice President for Women's and Family Affairs Massumeh Ebteka; siblings Ehsan Nobakht and Niloofar Nobakht, whose uncle Mohammad Bagher is also an Iranian vice president; and Ali Fereydoun, whose father Hossein is President Rouhani's brother and aide.

Adesnik said children of senior Iranian officials were unlikely to be U.S. permanent residents if they have been in the U.S. only on short-term student visas.

"They certainly could be facing a challenge now," Adesnik said. "It's possible that the U.S. would renew their visas. But there is a constant stream of young Iranians who want to come to the U.S. to get the best education, and they definitely are going to be affected."

Iranian Americans' reactions

The U.S. entry ban also drew mixed reactions from the Iranian American community.

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a nonprofit group frequently critical of the Trump administration in its escalating tensions with Tehran, lamented the move in a statement to VOA Persian.

"If this action were aimed at securing the release of Americans detained in Iran, facilitating negotiations to prevent a military standoff or another legitimate goal, then we would applaud it. Unfortunately … this seems to be a symbolic doubling down of the failed maximum pressure policy which has only interfered with efforts to free Americans, made war more likely and undermined human rights defenders in Iran," said NIAC President Jamal Abdi.

The Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIAC), a nonprofit group that supports what it calls the Iranian people's "struggle for democratic change" and a "non-nuclear government," told VOA Persian that it welcomed the U.S. entry ban as "necessary but long overdue."

"This ban must not be limited only to the families of regime officials," OIAC added. "All Tehran agents … operating under different disguises such as students, scholars and businesspeople must be exposed and expelled from the U.S."

U.S. network NBC News said some families of Americans detained in Iran had lobbied the Trump administration for years to deny visas to the children or relatives of senior Iranian officials as a way of pressuring those officials to release the detainees.

In a message to VOA Persian, the family of Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran 12 years ago and whose relatives believe Iran detained him, said it was not directly involved in that lobbying campaign.

"But we welcome any actions that continue to send a message to Iran that it must send our father and all Iran hostages home," the Levinson family said.