Face in the mirror
Plight of Iranians in American Airports
January 18, 2001
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
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
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
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
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.