Cablegate: Streamlining Visa Process for Iranians Would Reinforce Us

Published: Wed 26 Jul 2006 01:21 PM
DE RUEHDE #4793/01 2071321
P 261321Z JUL 06
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: 05 DUBAI 4824
DUBAI 00004793 001.2 OF 003
1.(SBU) Summary: In their quest for a visa to visit the United
States, Iranian nationals face a number of hurdles, including
exorbitant cost of traveling outside Iran for the interview and
visa pick-up and long waits for security advisory opinions. Time
and financial burdens undermine our message that we stand with
the Iranian people and support people-to-people exchanges.
AmConGen Dubai's two primary recommendations for alleviating the
burden Iranians face during the visa process are: 1)
establishing a trusted courier system for visa pick-up; 2) in
very specific cases, issuing a two-entry or multiple-entry visa
with longer validity. End summary.
The Goal
2.(SBU) The current visa process puts a substantial time and
financial burden on Iranian applicants living in Iran, as they
must travel to a US embassy or consulate outside of Iran for
their visa interview. AmConGen Dubai processes the highest
number of non-immigrant visas for Iranians. (Ankara, Istanbul,
Nicosia, and Vienna also process a large number.) Iranians
represent almost 50% of NIV applicants in Dubai. According to
the NIV system on 1 July, AmConGen Dubai had interviewed 6582
Iranian visa applicants since the beginning of the fiscal year
on October 1. We issued 2497 visas and refused 3989 applicants
(Some of these refusals are actually pending cases waiting for
required security clearances). This cable only details the
situation for Iranian NIV applicants in Dubai and our
suggestions for ways to relieve some of these burdens here. The
purpose of such changes would be to send a message of solidarity
with the Iranian people that we are not trying to punish them
for the behavior of their government. None of these suggestions
compromise security measures currently in place.
The Process
3.(SBU) Inhabitants of Iran who want to apply for an NIV in
Dubai go through the following steps: 1) schedule an appointment
for an interview; 2) obtain a visa to UAE (one very good contact
was recently denied a UAE visa); 3) pay for an Iranian exit
visa; 4) travel from Iran to Dubai for the interview (Note: All
Iranian applicants must appear for a personal interview,
including children. endnote); 5) if approved for a visa, Iranian
applicants must undergo a security check, which usually takes a
minimum of two weeks and can be much longer; 6) once their
approval is posted to the website, they have three months to
return to Dubai to pick up their visa.
4.(SBU) We do not regularly quiz applicants on the costs
involved in applying for a visa, and there are many variables,
such as whether or not they need hotel accommodations, how much
leave they need from work, and how much help they require from
third parties, such as travel agencies, to fill out their
paperwork or schedule an appointment. Anecdotally however, we
hear that the financial costs for Iranian visa applicants are
high. A close contact recently told Conoff that she paid a
travel agency approximately $1000 for the costs related to her
visa interview. This fee included: 1) payment of the $100 visa
application fee; 2) one night's lodging at a local three-star
hotel; 3) roundtrip airfare from Tehran to Dubai; and 4) a fee
for an appointment (discussed below). Additional costs can
include help from a travel agency or others in filling out the
DS-156 application form electronically, as now required. (Note:
the copy center located in the consulate building charges $40
for each application.)
Problems Getting Appointments Leads to High Costs
--------------------------------------------- ----
5.(SBU) In Dubai, NIV interviews are by appointment only,
scheduled via an automatic phone system in Bahrain. The number
of Iranian appointments given depends on the number of
Farsi-speaking consuls available. Iranians often say they have
trouble reaching the Bahrain number - possibly because of some
kind of block on calls from Iran - or that when they get
through, there are no available appointments in the near future.
As a result, they often resort to using a travel agency to book
their appointment. We believe switching to the Internet-based
appointment system that CA is currently working on will ease
many of our current problems with the scheduling process. (Note:
The Iranian government could block that website. Iranians
regularly report problems accessing State Department websites.)
Hurdles Exist Even After Determined Eligible for Visa
--------------------------------------------- --------
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6.(SBU) Iranian applicants approved for a visa face another
hurdle - the security advisory opinion (SAO) or clearance
process. This process currently takes an average of three to
four weeks, but can often take longer if the applicant is an
Iranian government employee (average time at least six weeks) or
falls into an area covered by the Technology Alert List (TAL).
We have a number of Iranian applicants who have been waiting for
more than one year for their clearances.
7.(SBU) Once applicants are cleared by Washington, they have
three months in which to pick up their visa. As Iranian law
prohibits the mailing of Iranian passports outside the country
and we do not want to bear the responsibility of releasing
applicants' passports to travel agencies, successful applicants
must buy a second plane ticket to Dubai. (Note: one family
member can pick up visas for the entire family.) Furthermore,
because new mandated facial recognition checks sometimes require
24 hours to process in visa printing, we can no longer offer
same day visa pick-up, necessitating at least one night's stay
in Dubai. All applicants - Iranian and otherwise - must also be
cleared through our local DHS Visa Security Unit before
issuance, as required by the Homeland Security Act of 2002. This
may require a personal interview and possibly an unexpected
extension of their stay in Dubai or a last-minute change to
their onward travel plans to the US.
8.(SBU) Successful Iranian visa applicants receive a one entry,
three-month visa. Frequent travelers have to repeat all the
steps above and pay all the accompanying costs, every time they
want a visa. In addition to the resentment this causes, we have
seen cases where USG interests have suffered. We know of
instances where prominent Iranian activists in the US on J visas
have turned down invitations to speak at conferences abroad
because of the uncertainty of getting return visas in a timely
matter -- if at all. Their participation at such conferences
would have served to highlight their calls for greater
democratization in Iran.
Ideas to Lighten the Load for Iranians
9.(SBU) AmConGen Dubai's two primary recommendations for
alleviating the burden Iranians face during the visa process
are: 1) establishing a trusted courier system for visa pick-up,
and 2) in very specific cases, issuing a two-entry or
multiple-entry visa with longer validity.
Eliminating a second trip to Dubai
10.(SBU) Embassy Abu Dhabi and ConGen Dubai will switch August 1
to a courier passback service for printed visas through a local
courier service, but this is only for applicants with UAE
addresses. As mailing passports is illegal under Iranian law, we
cannot use this option for most Iranians. We propose, instead,
making a formal request to the Swiss Government that the US
Interest Section in Tehran begin couriering to us Iranian
passports. Approved visa applicants could drop off their
passport with the US Interest Section, and the Swiss could send
ConGen Dubai -- and possibly other posts -- passports via Swiss
diplomatic pouch. In the case of Dubai, the Swiss consulate is
located one floor above the consulate in the World Trade Center,
making receipt of passports simple. Once the visas were printed,
we would return them to the Swiss to return via dip pouch for
distribution at the US Interests Section.
11.(SBU) There is precedence for such a system; US passports are
already sent to the Interests Section via dip pouch for
distribution. In an informal discussion with a Swiss diplomat,
he indicated the Swiss would likely be eager to help, if the
logistics could be worked out. His primary concern was there
could be a large time lag if the Swiss Embassy in Tehran had to
send the pouches via Bern. However, even if transmission and
return took two weeks, we could offer it as an option.
Eliminating or decreasing intake and return of passports in
person, and the accompanying constant requests for special
treatment and complaints if applicants do not show up at the
allotted time, would also be a tremendous time-saver and
stress-reliever to the visa section in Dubai.
12.(SBU) We understand that CA and ECA are discussing a pilot
program for pre-screening exchange program applicants to cut
down trips to Dubai to one. We applaud this initiative. At this
time, however, we do not foresee a way to expand such a program
to all applicants.
Validity of Visas
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13.(SBU) We urge that in a very limited number of cases where it
is deemed to be in the USG interest, we be allowed to request
for Iranians a two-entry or multiple-entry visa with longer
validity, subject to Department approval. Many of the Iranian
visa applicants in Dubai are return applicants who routinely
travel to the US. They include students, academics, and
professionals traveling to attend conferences, and those
traveling to visit family members. Multiple entry visas in very
specific cases would dramatically ease the current burden on
Iranian visa applicants, as well as on the consular section. At
the same time, should there be any new security-related
information added to the system at any time about that person,
the immigration officer would be able to address the issue on
their attempted return to the US.
Visa Processing Time
14.(SBU) Any possible steps to speed up SAO clearance time for
Iranians, or even to have an instituted process for requesting
expedited handling of cases deemed to be in USG interest, would
be well received. There are numerous cases where prestigious
Iranians are left in limbo for many months, or even over a year,
with no response on their visa. (reftel)
Scoring PD Points
15.(SBU) Comment: Any improvement in the visa process for
Iranians would be a huge public relations boon for the US.
Iranians think we refuse them visas or make the process
difficult for political reasons. In reality, according to the
NIV system, we have issued 2497 visas to Iranians since October
1, representing close to 40 percent of Iranian applicants. Even
absent any change to the visa system, it is in our interest to
publicize the large or specialized groups of Iranians we allow
to visit the US, such as the blind Iranian goal ball team, who
were allowed to attend a competition in May, and members of the
Iranian soccer team who traveled to the US to participate in a
friendly match against a US professional soccer team. The new
RPO PAO can help flag future cases for Department attention. At
the same time, in our public discourse, we can also call
attention to cases where Americans are denied visas to Iran by
the Iranian government.
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