Iranian Students Speak Up as US-Iran Tensions Escalate


Recover operations with victims of Flight 752 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By Maddy La Turner


On Jan. 9 at noon, the Iranian Student Association protested with the Students for a Democratic Society in response to escalating tensions between Iran and the United States on the University of Utah campus.

“The reason we wanted to attend the protest was to first of all say we were against any kind of war against our nation or any other nation,” said Saeed Taheri, president of IrSA and a fifth-year computer science Ph.D. student. “War, in general, is the worst thing that could happen to any nation … We wanted to talk about the problems that we have every day.”

On Jan. 3, Donald Trump approved a drone strike that killed Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani. Since then, there have been a series of back-and-forth blows between Iran and the United States, which include Iran backing off on its commitments to the nuclear deal (more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and the United States implementing another series of economic sanctions against Iran. This, however, has only been the latest in a series of hostile events between the two countries. The sudden escalation and consequent talks of war is what drove Taheri to protest.

“Things escalated so fast recently,” Taheri said. “We wanted our voices to be heard.”

IrSA also held a vigil on Jan. 12 for the 176 victims of the plane crash caused by the Iranian government.

Iran plane crash vigil. (Courtesy of Saeed Taheri)

SDS, known for protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s, organized the protest. “Rally with us to show that we will not participate in a war for oil in the Middle East,” said the SDS Facebook event for the protest. “We do not fight rich people’s wars. Money for war and occupation of foreign countries comes out of our pockets, and more money for bombs means less for homeless shelters in the city, less for financial aid, less for everything that struggling people need.”

During the protest, students handed out flyers containing a statement by IrSA, which details some of the difficulties Iranian students face, as well as calling for peace. IrSA is a club at the U dedicated to creating a community for Iranian students and focusing on the problems they may have. “We’re trying to provide the platform for Iranian students over here to feel more safe and secure and make them feel more free to talk about problems that they have,” Taheri said.

Iranian students face unique challenges that other international students will not. Taheri, along with many other Iranian students, is here on a single-entry visa, which allows its holder to legally enter the U.S. once. If the visa holder leaves the U.S., they cannot reenter, even if the visa is still valid. Instead, they must start the process from the beginning, a process that Taheri estimates can take over a year.

“When you come in with a single-entry visa, no one takes the risk to go out again,” Taheri said. “You feel trapped.”

Visas for Iranians are hard to obtain. Because there is no U.S. embassy in Iran, students must travel to other countries to compete with locals there for one. The U.S. virtual Iran embassy recommends traveling to the United Arab Emirates (roughly 1,400 miles away from Iran, depending on location), Turkey (roughly 1,500 miles) or Armenia (roughly 1,000 miles). Some students find their appointments and interviews in those countries randomly suspended. Even after getting a visa, Iranian students can find their visas cancelled without explanation. “You never know what’s going to happen to you,” Taheri said.

There is another difficulty in their situation. “Because of the travel ban … none of our families are able to come over here,” Taheri said.

On Jan. 27, 2017, Trump enacted a travel ban that prevented citizens from Iran (as well as from Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen) from entering the United States. Although the original executive order was only supposed to last 90 days, the ban still exists — and Trump may even expand it.

Taheri had his own problems with visas and the travel ban. He had gone home for the first time in five years to reapply for his visa, and the day before he was scheduled to go back to the United States, Trump announced the ban.

The flyers handed out by IrSA during the protest. (Courtesy IrSA)

“I was packing my stuff, and I told my family, ‘I’m not going to say goodbye to you because I’m going to go there, and they’re going to deport me back.’ The whole flight took 19 hours, and I had no idea what was going to happen,” Taheri said.

He passed the border hours before the ban went into effect.

“That 19 hours on that flight, that was the worst time of my life,” Taheri said. “Just a few hours after that, whoever came from Iran was detained.”

Taheri’s sister also resides in the U.S., but their mother is still in Iran. The possibility of war brings the worst-case scenario to mind. “Our mother, she’s around 70 years old, she’s back home, she’s all alone, and every single day, my sister and I are thinking, ‘What if something happens to our mom? We cannot go back,’” Taheri said.

What can others do for Iranian students? Taheri recognizes that students don’t have much political power, but says that “at least they can be supportive,” and cited the support he felt from SDS.

“I started my studies here in the U.S. in Texas, and during the holidays I had no friends, I had no family, my English was not that good, I couldn’t make any friends over there. In the period of the holidays from like December to mid-January was the worst time of year for me,” Taheri said.

“If students know more about these situations and know any Iranians around them, I want them to know that, especially during holidays, during Thanksgiving, during Christmas, during New Year’s, many Iranians are so alone. If they can welcome them to their families, to their friend groups, and be supportive of them, that would be something great.”


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