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Face in the mirror
Plight of Iranians in American Airports

January 18, 2001
The Iranian

When I question something that rubs me the wrong way, I first look at the face in the mirror before projecting blame onto the image in the window. In that spirit, I offered a personal reflection about the search-and-fingerprint policies that the American government conducts with respect to Iranian travellers ["Complain to the Iranian government"]. I offered simply the suggestion that the people aggrieved by these regulations should also complain to the Iranian government. Wow! Little did I know the revolutionary nature of this idea! An avalanche of gibberish and vituperation, Iranian style, soon followed.

One missive, written by a university professor and practicing physician in the Los Angeles area, concluded that I was defending the American regulations and therefore I was a traitor no better than the "Modjahedin Khalq," as he put it. "Nothing, absolutely nothing," this physician wrote, "is more painful when one notices that his own kind is siding with the enemy." ["Shocked & saddened"] I am not quite sure what or who is the enemy that he had in mind. Maybe Iranians get stripped to their underwear because of such natural and grateful feelings toward a country that houses and feeds them.

Regardless, the doctor continued: "People like Senator Lieberman and Senator Feinstein hates Iranians in the US, so be it. But when a hamvatan side with Feinsteins and Libermans and legitimize their humiliation of our parents and friends at US airports, then that day I feel the stab of the knife in my back." "And," he concluded, "I do not even want to remove the knife, for the pain is real and awakening." Wow! Very heady stuff.

That wasn't all, though. I was apparently no better than "the Iranian monarchists," who, as he put it, "are decent enough to avoid defending humiliation of the Iranians at US airports." Worse yet, somewhere in my writing the doctor had spotted a form of a veiled call to arms against the Islamic Republic! Do you want [my brother]," he queried, "to fight the IRI regime for what he experienced in LAX Airport?" In another place in his letter, he wrote that I wanted him "to overthrow the Islamic Regime in Iran, 20,000 miles from my home and my family."

Well, I went back and re-read my piece for the fear that maybe I had somehow let out my well known and profound dislike of Iran and Iranians! No such luck, the piece said what it said, so I had to search for another explanation about how this good doctor could manage to weave such a mind boggling interpretation of my work.

Cognitive dissonance or not, I figured, okay, no harm was done, most people do that sort of thing especially if they are judgmental by temperament. Then it dawned on me that what could be bothering the doctor is that these policies treated him, his friends, and relatives "like criminals," as he put it. And that has robbed him and his loved ones of self-respect.

I was all of sixteen years old and privileged to be attending Villa St. Jean, an American boarding school in Fribourg, Switzerland, when I came face to face for the first time with an experience that scarred me for life. The incident took place at the Geneva Airport in 1969 where I was interrogated for some time by the passport police. There was nothing threatening in my diminutive size; I did have a shaved head though, a more or less number 2 buzz-cut, looking more like a thug than a student. I also carried a student passport, with its black plastic-coated cover, in part blackened with Arabic script. The visa was a "courtesy" visa issued at the Swiss Embassy in Moscow and seemed to be in order. It required, I thought, greater respect for the holder than I was being accorded.

If there was any profiling going on, I must have met it dead on. The interrogation spilled into a suitcase search and back to more questions. I spoke very little to no English at the time, so I would only respond to questions in the affirmative or negative and that made the whole process go on for much longer than it should have. In the years since then, regardless of origin or destination, carrying an Iranian or non-Iranian passport, when I approach a passport check or customs station my stomach would tighten up with a queazy feeling of anticipation that if it can easily make one's bowels water.

I would try to appear nonchalant, innocent as a newborn. Sometimes I would go though and sometimes I would be stopped. Little did I know that my demeanor had so little to do with the method that singled me out or waived me through. Regardless, I would go back and work on my gait and facial expressions for the next passage. When stopped and searched or interrogated in Paris, London, Geneva, Zurich, Freetown, Boston, New York, or Washington, D.C. not once I felt inferior, indignant, contemptible, or morally outraged at the treatment that I received. I knew myself, I had nothing to apologize for, I had done nothing wrong: none of this could therefore be personal. The universe simply had better things to do than to be focussed on me; the eyes of the world were not on me no matter how important I appeared to myself. There was no shame to be had. The trick was and is not to have an overly inflated opinion of oneself.

It is neither illogical nor unrealistic to call on the Iranian government to help lift the American search-and-fingerprint policies. After all, the treatment is not against the specific individual that crosses path with the regulations. The affront is to the Iranian passport, a document that is issued by the Iranian government to facilitate the travel of its citizens in foreign lands according to international law and regulations. The disrespect to that document is a dishonor to Iranian sovereignty and Iran should be as outraged about this as it says it is about the plight of the Palestinians. This is how a likely scenario can evolve in this area:

After an Iranian-origin person is made subject to the search-and-fingerprint policy, she complains to the Iranian Interests Section in Washington and the Section via the parent embassy files a complaint with the Department of State. Meanwhile, the aggrieved party hires a law firm and files a suit against the U.S. government and the carrier. A separate freedom-of-information-act request should ask the offending agencies to produce documents related to the policy in the hopes of determining from the horse's mouth why and on what basis are Iranians and others treated this way.

Regardless of the FOIA requests, the case will proceed through the regular court channels. If it the case turns out in favor of the complainant all the better, but if it does not then the last appeal must be exhausted in the American courts before, under international law, Iran could espouse the claim and complain about the regulations directly to the International Court of Justice. There is a sufficient body of customary and conventional human rights law for Iran to back its claim. Meanwhile, if an Iranian is aggrieved by a U.S. carrier acting under the color of U.S. law, then a similar course of action should be followed in the European country with an eye to referring the matter ultimately to the European Court of Human Rights.

If the Iranian government gave a damn about the two doctors and others, who came down on me like a ton of bricks, it would underwrite the legal cost and expenses of the project. Meanwhile, next time when the travelling Iranian Foreign Minister is in town he should accompany a number of ordinary Iranian passengers through the search-and-fingerprint process at the JFK Airport in New York. God bless.


Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations and law and practices law in Massachusetts.

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