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Visa Waiver Issue Highlights Obama Administration’s Permissiveness Toward Iran

That hearing underscored the longstanding majority opposition among US congressmen to normalized relations with Iran. Nevertheless, Iran’s official media seized upon this development to direct propaganda against not just the US but also Israel. A spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry declared that the American decision was made “under pressure from the Zionist lobby.”

While Israeli officials have certainly taken a role in the opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and subsequent trends toward rapprochement between the two countries, that opposition has prevailed among the entirety of the Republican party and a very large minority of Democrats, many of whom have no notable connections to Israel.

Polling data has also indicated that skepticism about Iran’s trustworthiness and future behavior is also strong among American citizens, who still tend to see Iran through the lens of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and subsequent hostage-taking at the US embassy.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has almost single-handedly pushed back against that skepticism, arguably taking a permissive stance on Iran policy while pushing for quick, full implementation of the July 14 nuclear agreement. In recent days, the administration has been criticized for apparently declining to make a serious response to Iran’s ballistic missile test in October, which the UN has certified as being a violation of Security Council resolutions. A similar test took place in November and was almost certainly another such violation.

Last week’s Senate hearing saw multiple congressmen suggesting that these violations should change the Obama administration’s calculations regarding the provision of sanctions relief, but there is no indication that the White House intends to follow this advice. Indeed, the administration made itself subject to related criticism in the wake of the visa waiver decision, as it has reportedly told Iran not to worry about the enforcement of that rule.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that the State Department had promised to personally intervene to prevent the absence of visa waivers from interfering with Iran-US business relations. Specifically, it assured Tehran that visas for Iranian visitors could be expedited by the White House and could allow for multiple visits over a long period of time.

Omri Ceren of the Israel Project think tank characterized this response from the White House as sending the message that the denial of visa waivers to Iran is not okay, even though Iran’s provocative missile tests are. Iran has used both of these issues to warn the US that it might elect to walk away from the nuclear deal, either as a response to sanctions related to the violations of UN resolutions or in response to travel restrictions that Iran interprets as interfering with the sanctions relief guaranteed by the deal.

This has contributed to the perception among Obama’s critics that the White House is focused on preserving the nuclear agreement above all else. The Free Beacon also indicates that the administration’s promises of no interference with Iranian business dealings may justify criticism of a relatively hands-off policy in the Middle East.

This criticism was expressed on Sunday in an editorial by JNS, which claimed that the US is simply not doing much in the region and that this is contributing to Iran’s expansion in Syria, as well as the continuing rise of ISIL. As an element of this, JNS refers to the administration’s efforts to push implementation of the nuclear agreement – efforts that depend in part upon the neglect of inconvenient facts that undermine a narrative of full Iranian cooperation. Not least of these are the ballistic missile violations.

That neglect arguably supports not only a narrative of full Iranian compliance but also a narrative of a general change in Iranian behavior. In the immediate aftermath of last summer’s nuclear negotiations, President Obama suggested to the media that rapprochement between the two countries could encourage a moderating trend within the Iranian regime. But this sentiment has been contradicted by others including the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which maintains that the so-called moderate presidency of Hassan Rouhani has led to no real changes inside the Islamic Republic.

Furthermore, American critics have emphasized continued Iranian belligerence toward the West as an example of the apparent lack of moderation. On Sunday, the Washington Post ran an editorial by Daniel Levinson pointing to his father’s 2007 disappearance and apparent detention in Iran as a reason to believe that the Islamic Republic still poses a danger to Americans. The article also cited the apparent inaction on Robert Levinson’s case as an example of how the White House squandered its leverage in the nuclear negotiations.

Levinson is one of five Americans currently being held in Iran, and one of these, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, was detained and convicted during Rouhani’s tenure. During this same period, there has been a reported uptick in anti-Western propaganda among Iranian officials, as well as an increase in asymmetrical warfare through hacking.

The Daily Caller reported on Monday that in 2013, Iran succeeded in hacking a dam 20 miles from New York City, in an attempt to map the system.

Such incidents are likely indicative of ongoing problems in bilateral relations, but there is no clear evidence that they will result in a corresponding reaction from the US under Obama. Iran may thus have opportunities to simultaneously move economically closer to the US while pushing back against it politically. And for that matter, it may attempt a similar tack with American allies.

As Agence-France Presse reported on Monday, the governments of regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia are preparing for direct dialogue, in a move that contradicts the rising tide of belligerence and proxy wars, especially in the battleground of Yemen. It remains to be seen whether these trends will diminish in the wake of such dialogue, but it is likely that the Obama administration will support the same sort of rapprochement in foreign circles as it is pursuing on its own.

Meanwhile, Iran is also working to continue expanding relations with rivals of the US, chiefly Russia. The National reported on Monday that a high-level delegation of Russian economic and political figures had arrived in Tehran for a three day visit, where they were expected to pursue such matters as Russian arms shipments, and to do so with much less baggage than is involved in Iran-US relations.