Belmont, California — Here is a perfect recipe for creating new enemies for the United States: Issue visas to the moderates, intellectuals and pro-western people from the Middle East, enticing them to visit US. But when they arrive handcuff them and send them to jail for a night. Put them in a crowded cell with common criminals to humiliate them. Then, after their dignity has been completely eroded and they are truly antagonized against our land of law, order, and freedom, send them back. If you think that only our adversaries will concoct a recipe like this, think again, since this is exactly what our government did with over one hundred Iranian technocrats who came here to attend a university reunion.
One of these people is my friend Mohammad. He is a successful engineer and entrepreneur, who has founded several thriving software companies in Tehran. Mohammad is a cordial, jolly, rotund, 52-year-old man with a gentle manner. His warm personality and great sense of humor have served him well in coping with unpredictability of running a business despite the lawlessness of the Iranian system. About thirty years ago Mohammad graduated from Sharif University, a prestigious technical university, otherwise known as the MIT of Iran.
Mohammad was one of Sharif alumni living in Iran who were granted visas to attend their bi-annual reunion in Silicon Valley, California. Many more alumni from Iran applied, but only about 150 or so passed the State Department’s scrutiny and obtained visas. About 400 other Sharif alumni, most residing in the US, attended the reunion also.
But when Mohammad arrived in San Francisco on Friday, August 4, and after being photographed, fingerprinted, and interrogated, he was informed by the immigration agents that his visa had been revoked and that they would have to send him back — the following day.
Mohammed and two other fellow Sharif alumni, a married couple, who arrived on the same flight, were then handcuffed, shackled, and transferred to a jail, where they were booked, photographed, and fingerprinted — again. And to heighten their humiliation the two men were put in a small cell, with 12 other inmates, mostly common criminals.
“The cell was so small that there was only room to stand,” Mohammad told me in a phone call from Iran. “I quickly realized that the best way to cope with the situation is to befriend my cell mates. I introduced myself and got to know everyone quickly. We made arrangements so that for a few minutes every hour, one or two people could take their turn to actually sit down and rest,” Mohammad added. (Meanwhile, not too far away, in Hyatt hotel, the reunion attendees were distressed and concerned about the well being of more than 100 registered guests who had not shown up.)
The next day, immigration agents hand cuffed and shackled the three and transferred them back to San Francisco airport. They were sent back on a flight later that day.
No explanation was given for this blunder. Reporters were told that the rationales for this fiasco could not be revealed, as these rationales — if any — were protected by the US secrecy laws.
We may never know how this twisted diplomatic or bureaucratic blunder came about. But we clearly know that it insulted and debased the cream of the crop of the Iranian technocrats. These were the university professors, scientists, and business leaders who share our values and strive for Iran’s openness and its integration with the rest of the world. This disgraceful, schizophrenic, Boltonesque travesty has further soiled America’s image, and has made us lose the hearts and minds of people whose alliance we must win.
You would think that since we are facing and combating nuclear proliferation in Iran, we would be looking for allies and like-minded people there to help us moderate, temper and restrain this getting-out-of-hand situation? If not the educated elite, business leaders, or technocrats, who can we consider being on our side in Iran? Mullahs? Islamists? Jihadists?
It is time to realize that humiliating people from other countries will not subjugate them, nor will it make them our friends or make us any safer. Humiliation tactics have failed in Abu Ghraib, in Palestine, with Hamas, and with North Korea; it is sure to fail with Iran as well. Enticing people to come here only to shackle and jail them is not an effective way of impressing them with our democracy, justice and, freedom.
In detention, the Iranian couple were enraged, shocked and frightened. She was put in a cell with three prostitutes who tried to console her all night while she was crying and weeping. The husband was livid, not knowing where his wife is and what is happening to her. But my friend managed to keep his cool and his uncanny sense of humor throughout the ordeal. “I felt that the immigration agents were ordered to treat us that way, and what they did was out of their control. They actually did say that they were very sorry for treating us the way they did. But I felt the whole thing was planned, intended to teach us a lesson.”
To be sure, there are lessons to be learned from this mess. Maybe instead of making enemies, we should look for ways to better discern humility from hubris and friends from foes. As my friend Mohammad did, even in jail you can reach out to make friends, to ameliorate your situation, or at least make it tolerable. Likewise, in our current situation of national insecurity, we hardly need more enemies and surely can use many more friends.