Mahmoud and Minoo were my best friends during my days at the University of Southern California. They taught me about Persian culture, traditions, and history.  I explained American football and why Trojans and Bruins were bitter rivals.

This type of international camaraderie could be nearing an end.

Why The STEP Act?

If South Carolina Congressman J. Gresham Barrett’s recent legislative proposal is passed, Iranians will not be allowed to attend U.S. colleges any more. The Stop Terrorists Entry Program (STEP) Act seeks to make it illegal for Iranians to travel to the United States, except for medical emergencies and political and asylum after “extensive federal screening.”

According to Representative Barrett, the bill arose out of his desire to respond to two recent events related to our battle with terrorism.  First, the killing of 12 soldiers at Food Hood by an Army Major whose parents were Palestinian.  Second, the attempted hijack of an airplane by a Nigerian on Christmas Day.

The bill missed its’ targets.  Neither Palestinians nor Nigerians are included in Barrett’s STEP Act hit list.

A Battle For Hearts And Minds

At the core, the war against terrorism is a war of ideals.

It doesn’t help our position when political policies resemble the actions of a small child afraid of the dark.  Unless terrorism is a genetic trait, there’s no reason for thinking every Iranian is a bogeyman trying to destroy America.

In our national view, the U.S. has done nothing to incur the mad acts of violence by our ideological opponents.

As I’ve learned as a Riverside immigration lawyer, not all of the world shares this perspective.

Just two days ago, Iran President Ahmadinejad called the U.S. version of the 9/11 attacks a “big lie” used as a “a pretext for the war on terror and a prelude to invading Afghanistan.”

A large percentage, perhaps a majority, of Iranians disagree with him.  His 2009 re-election was marred by charges of widespread corruption and massive protests.

The Barrett legislation, however, sends the wrong message that we don’t care about their internal debate.  With friends like these, Iranians might wonder if it’s worth the risk to continue dissenting.

Abandoning Our Iranian Allies

Shahram Hashemi, an acknowledged September 11 hero, notes the Iranian protest movement has enormous implications for the entire Middle East.  Iranian advocates of non-violent resistance to Ahmadinejad’s politics, he writes, “need to see America’s outstretched arms rather than her cold shoulder.”

The STEP Act also minimizes Iranian immigrants’ loyalty to our nation.  Of the 1.0 to 1.5 million Iranians living in the United States, 81% are U.S. citizens and 15% are permanent residents.  In the war of ideals, Iranian-Americans are crucial allies.

As students of international politics, Mahmoud and Minoo often asserted the U.S. did not put enough effort into cultivating their foreign relationships.  I wonder what they’re thinking right now.

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