Courtesy of Ghazaleh Fotouhi
Mehdi realized his life’s dream to study in the United States during a drought in Iran.
While in high school, he witnessed a dizzying water shortage in Iran’s arid southern region, where the entire economy revolves around water buffalo herds. As the streams dried up, the buffaloes started dying.
Mehdi began to imagine a life in the US, working in a well-funded lab where he could study water management and climate change adaptation.
But his dreams were dashed when he realized that the US bans entry to Iranian men who previously served in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC.
The State Department has designated this branch of Iran’s military as a foreign terrorist organization.
“After two or three months, I realized it’s not going to happen [for] me [to study in the US]. ... I was losing my hope and my dreams."
“After two or three months, I realized it’s not going to happen [for] me,” Mehdi said. “I was losing my hope and my dreams.”
Mehdi, who asked to use his first name because his case is still technically undergoing administrative processing, had applied and gotten accepted into PhD programs at seven American universities. He even traveled to Armenia at the height of the pandemic to visit a US embassy for a student visa interview. But afterward, the process ground to a halt.
He was devastated. He had the acceptance letters, and no record of criminal activity or political work. His friends were getting visas. Why was he any different?
When US President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he ended a Trump-era visa ban on citizens from several majority-Muslim nations, allowing thousands of people from Iran, Syria and other countries to finally come to the US. But this did not include those who have served with the IRGC, with its active foreign terrorist designation.
Mehdi joined Telegram chat groups of Iranian visa applicants to try to understand what was happening in his case. That’s when he realized his random assignment to the IRGC for his required military service in 2016 was likely the cause of the hold up.
He said he didn’t want to serve, but couldn’t afford to pay the required fee for deferment — about $10,000 at the time.
For a year and a half, Mehdi spent his days washing cars and serving food in a mess hall, he said.
After researching US immigration law himself, he still can’t quite understand why his compulsory military service would be considered the equivalent to joining a terrorist organization.
“We are not allowed to go inside some buildings, we are not allowed to have access to some computers,” he said. “Normally speaking, [conscripts] will be doing office jobs: cleaning floors, preparing tea, these kinds of things.”
The IRGC and its proxies are believed to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops and allied military personnel in Iraq. The IRGC also oversees Iran’s ballistic missiles.
In 2019, then-president Donald Trump listed the group as a terrorist organization and imposed more sanctions on Iran’s economy. In 2020, IRGC's top commander in the elite Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, was assassinated in a US airstrike in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
“That made Iran the only country, according to the US government, where you can be drafted into a terrorist organization and forced to serve."
“That made Iran the only country, according to the US government, where you can be drafted into a terrorist organization and forced to serve,” said Ryan Costello, policy director for the National Iranian American Council.
After the 2019 decision, Costello’s office began receiving scores of complaints from Iranian Americans who had family members blocked from entering the US.
“Generally speaking, the IRGC is going to have hundreds of thousands of conscripts at any given time,” Costello said. “Factor that out to years of compulsory military service, and you’re probably talking about millions of people.”
The US State Department confirmed by email that people connected to the IRGC are ineligible for admission of any kind to the US, for any reason, under the Immigration and Nationality Act. A State Department spokesperson, speaking on background, said the agency cannot comment on whether there have been internal discussions about the policy or a potential reversal.
But Iranians affected by this rule are finding each other through Telegram groups, Twitter and word-of-mouth, trying to make the case together that they should be allowed into the US.
“No one looks at their military service as if it’s a job. ... It’s just something you have to do.”
“No one looks at their military service as if it’s a job,” said Ghazaleh Fotouhi, a civil engineer living in the suburbs or Washington, DC. “It’s just something you have to do.”
Courtesy of Ghazaleh Fotouhi
In Iran, if a man hasn’t completed his military service, he can’t buy property, apply for a passport or even get a driver’s license, she noted.
Fotouhi is an American citizen, but her husband is Iranian. They applied for a spousal visa for him to come to the US back in 2016.
He did his compulsory military service in the IRGC years ago, and his recent visa refusal cited the rule banning entrance to people connected to foreign terrorist organizations.
The couple has been living apart for five years now, with Fotouhi making as many trips back to Tehran as she can amid pandemic-era travel restrictions.
She’s spent the past months sending out flyers, lobbying Congress and organizing a protest over the weekend in Washington.
When she thinks about all the people in her Telegram group in similar predicatments, she gets emotional: the American mothers with young children who have never met their fathers; or Moloud, a woman living in Houston who went through cancer treatment without her son by her side. The World is only using Moloud's first name, because she frequently travels to visit her son in Iran, and her husband was forced to flee the country after the 1979 revolution.
As a naturalized US citizen, Moloud, in most cases, would be allowed to sponsor her son for a US visa. But she’s been blocked for years.
“We feel like a punching bag,” Moloud said in Persian, speaking through a translator. “We’ve been victimized on both sides — both from Iran, and now from the US. The only thing we’ve done is want to be together,” she told The World.
Fotouhi hopes that her activism will lead to the end of bans for those conscripted into the IRGC.
“I hope people understand that this isn’t a political protest,” Fotouhi said in Persian, through a translator.
“We only want to show people that we are normal citizens, who only want to be reunited and have this ban put to an end,” she said.
This story was co-reported with Sima Ghadirzadeh.
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