September 15, 2022 | Policy Brief

U.S. Should Deny Visa to Iranian President

A bipartisan group of 52 U.S. lawmakers asked President Joe Biden on Monday to deny Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi permission to visit New York for the UN General Assembly later this month. This would be an extraordinary measure, yet Raisi was personally responsible for the summary execution of thousands of political prisoners, and his government has attempted to kidnap and kill U.S. citizens on American soil this year.

Seven Republican senators made a similar request in August for Biden to deny Raisi a visa. They wrote, “In 1988, while deputy prosecutor of Tehran, Raisi served on a Death Commission which sentenced approximately 5,000 prisoners to death … without the right to appeal or a fair trial.”

Raisi continued to commit abuses as he rose through the ranks of the Iranian judiciary, becoming its chief in 2019. That same year, the Trump administration imposed human rights sanctions on Raisi and other senior Iranian officials. The designation makes Raisi subject to U.S. secondary sanctions and bans any dealing with him by U.S. persons. The designation also means that people who engage in certain transactions with Raisi can be the target of further designation. Additionally, the sanctions prohibit financial institutions from facilitating transactions “for or on behalf of the persons” designated by the Treasury Department, such as Raisi.

Both congressional appeals to Biden cited the Justice Department’s revelation in August that it had arrested and charged a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for attempting to arrange the assassination of former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, likely near his current office in Washington, DC. Last year, the Justice Department exposed Tehran’s effort to kidnap Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad and transport her to the Middle East.

Five hundred Iranian-American professionals also sent an open letter to Biden calling on him to block Raisi’s visit. They said, “Raisi should stand trial before international tribunals for crimes against humanity and genocide.”

As the host country for UN headquarters, the United States has a general obligation to grant visas to those conducting UN business. However, as lawmakers noted in their letters to Biden, U.S. law authorizes a denial of visas to individuals responsible for torture and extrajudicial killings.

In 1987, the U.S. government declared Austrian President Kurt Waldheim ineligible for a visa because of his responsibility for the persecution of Jews and other civilians during World War II. Washington also refused to let Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat visit in 1988 because of his responsibility for acts of terrorism.

Even by the standards of the theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran, Raisi is not a run-of-the-mill politician. He has been a driving force behind the state’s pervasive abuse of its citizens over the past four decades. Allowing Raisi to visit the United States while the regime he represents is plotting to kill Americans is a mistake.

Biden should heed the advice of lawmakers and deny Raisi a visa.

Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior Iran and financial economics advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), where David Adesnik is director of research. Follow them on Twitter @SGhasseminejad and @adesnik. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Iran Iran Human Rights Iran Sanctions Sanctions and Illicit Finance