Take Them Off the Leash

Why the U.S. should grant Iranian journalists freedom to report, outside a 25-mile radius of New York.


Hopes are higher than they have been in years that the United States and Iran can take positive steps to reduce tensions across the Middle East. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, compared to his predecessor, has proved to be a breath of fresh air: He has announced a new policy of constructive engagement with the international community, unexpectedly released 11 political prisoners, and even exchanged letters with President Barack Obama.

Now, both Obama and Rouhani have reiterated their desire to improve U.S.-Iranian ties before the U.N. General Assembly. In a speech yesterday, the American president said he was "encouraged" by Rouhani’s election, and pledged that the United States would attempt to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, Rouhani made the case that international politics was no longer a "zero-sum game," and called for "a world against violence and extremism." Earlier, Washington agreed to allow "goodwill exchanges" with Iran, including activities related to humanitarian projects and sporting events.

While it’s positive that Obama is pursuing his own version of ping-pong diplomacy, there’s another important step he could take to create the space for dialogue — ending the long-standing restrictions that have prevented Iranian journalists from working freely in the United States. Obama should do so with the hope and expectation that Iran will reciprocate by extending visas to American journalists, whose movements are similarly circumscribed.

Iranian officials have complained that their country’s journalists are almost never granted visas that would allow them to travel freely in the United States. Those who are admitted generally accompany visiting government delegations and are given a limited visa, called a C-2, which restricts them to within a 25-mile radius of the U.N. headquarters in New York.

Iran has cited Washington’s policy to justify the limits it often places on the small number of U.S. journalists who are given access to Iran. Generally, American journalists are granted only short-term visas and have to obtain permission to travel beyond a 25-mile radius of Tehran.  

This policy echoes the rigid, Cold War-era constraints placed on journalists by both the Soviet Union and the United States. Today as then, it undermines the interests of both countries: Iran, for example, is often presented in the American media as a caricature of a totalitarian state. The truth is more complicated — while Iran is highly repressive, it is also an extremely complex and dynamic society. U.S. journalists can help bring humanizing stories to a larger and broader segment of the American public, creating greater engagement in a critical foreign policy issue.

The United States can also benefit from granting visas to Iranian journalists, as it will open channels for U.S. officials to communicate with the Iranian public. Until now, the United States has sought to accomplish this goal through government-funded Farsi language broadcasters like Radio Farda. Moreover, it would remove a convenient excuse that Iran has used to limit international journalists from entering Iran, as it did ahead of the presidential elections this year.

Of course it is possible to take such steps while also recognizing that Iran brutally represses its own media. A vicious and sustained crackdown was launched following the disputed 2009 reelection of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and dozens of journalists that have been rounded up over the years remain in jail. Many, like former Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, have been brutalized and tortured in government custody. The Ahmadinejad administration also took aggressive action to restrict online communication, including social media, and announced plans plans to create a "halal" Internet limited to government-approved content.

In his op-ed published last week in the Washington Post, Rouhani called for "creat[ing] an atmosphere where peoples of the region can decide their own fates." He was referring to Syria and Bahrain — but the same standard should apply to his own country. Rouhani can break with his country’s recent past by doing more to protect freedom of speech, ending the crackdown against journalists, and releasing all of those who are currently in prison, some serving long sentences.

While the much-anticipated handshake between Obama and Rouhani did not occur, Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, tomorrow — the highest direct talks between the two countries’ leaders since the 1979 Iranian revolution. It is true that U.S.-Iranian dialogue must occur between the leaders, but it must also include the people of both nations. The only way to ensure that the public is engaged is to improve media access for both countries.

Obama should make the first move, casting the relaxation of visa restrictions on Iranian journalists as consistent with American values and an affirmation of his belief in the power of information. The Iranian government should reciprocate by ending the repression and imprisonment of Iranian journalists and allowing the U.S. and international media access to its country. These are not mere gestures: By improving the flow of information between their two countries, Obama and Rouhani can lay the groundwork for the dialogue and trust that make diplomatic solutions possible.

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