Trump’s Visa Ban Order: The View From a Worried Middle East

  • Move will confirm fears of ‘escalating tensions’ with Muslims
  • U.S. allies are mostly absent from list of targeted nations

Trump's Visa Order: Why the Middle East Is Worried

With the stroke of a pen, Donald Trump barred most citizens from seven mainly Muslim Mideast and East African nations from entering the U.S. While the latest executive order of his week-old presidency delivers on a campaign pledge to strengthen America’s borders, it was denounced in advance by human-rights groups as an attack on some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and will alarm many in the Islamic world.

Under the order -- which also placed a 120-day ban on virtually all refugee admissions -- nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia won’t be able to enter the U.S. for at least 90 days while officials determine what information is needed from other countries to safely admit visitors. While the order doesn’t list the countries, it points to laws that cover those seven, which were provided by the White House. Most of the countries are home to conflict or Islamist insurgency, while the U.S. has sanctioned Iran for sponsoring terrorism. So, what’s at stake?

Donald Trump signs executive orders on Jan. 27.

Source: Pool/Getty Images

‘Fears Confirmed’

Above all, the move will “confirm the fears many had of Trump escalating tensions with the Muslim world,” said Ibrahim Fraihat, a professor of conflict resolution at the Doha Institute. With this act, it’s clear Trump intends to deliver on pledges that many in the region had hoped to dismiss as campaign rhetoric, he said. That means other stated intentions -- including the incendiary idea of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to disputed Jerusalem from Tel Aviv -- can’t be brushed off, Fraihat said.

Less Cooperation on Security

In an interview, Trump said he wanted to keep out people intent on carrying out “tremendous destruction” in the U.S. But the executive order is likely to do “a very poor job” of helping to counter terrorism, said Amir Handjani, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council based in Dubai. It’s more likely to “hurt cooperation on terrorism rather than enhancing it,” he said. “If these countries feel that the U.S. government is shutting their citizens out, they have fewer incentives to collaborate.”

In a briefing published Jan. 27, security analysts at The Soufan Group noted that no major terrorist plot or attack in the U.S. since 2001 has involved “a perpetrator or plotter from six of the seven countries listed in the ban.” A Somali immigrant wounded 10 people in September knife attack at a Minnesota mall that was claimed by Islamic State, it said.

Extremists will use the ban as a recruiting tool, said Fraihat in Doha. It provides “just the right message” to bolster their argument that the U.S. is hostile to all Muslims, he said.

Blanket Ban

Citizens of Middle Eastern and African nations applying for a U.S. visa already face some of the most stringent documentation requirements. But that’s very different from a “blanket ban,” said Handjani. It will be perceived as “very un-American because you are discriminating against people based on country of origin and religion,” he said. Relatives of U.S. citizens, students, academics, businessmen and those seeking medical care will be shut out for now. In 2015, the last year for which full official data is available online, citizens of the seven nations were granted a total of 89,387 non-immigrant and immigrant visas.

The order bans entry of “aliens” from the nations, leaving room for strict interpretation, said the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based advocacy and civil rights group. If the Trump administration takes a broad interpretation of this order, U.S. permanent resident aliens and dual nationals who aren’t U.S. citizens and holding a passport from one of these countries may be prevented from entering or re-entering the U.S., it said in a report.

Foes

Iran’s inclusion comes at a sensitive time for the Islamic Republic. Trump and leading members of his cabinet oppose the 2015 nuclear deal that lifted sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear program. And with Iran holding a presidential election in May, any spike in tensions between the foes could swing support behind hardline critics of President Hassan Rouhani.

Iranian officials say they’ll reserve judgment on Trump until he rolls out policies. So the visa ban may come to be seen as “sending the first signal” as to how the new administration will treat Iran, said Handjani. It’s likely to be interpreted as a provocation and “a backdoor way” to pressure the Iranian government, he said. The order “certainly doesn’t do anything to convince Iranians that the Trump administration has any interest in reducing tensions with Iran,” said Trita Parsi, author of the forthcoming book “Losing an Enemy - Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy,” and president of the National Iranian American Council. It “will add fuel to arguments of Iranian hardliners” who will point to Iran’s compromise as part of the nuclear accord and “say ‘look what it generated: this extremely negative response against Iranian people’.”

And Friends

U.S. allies in the Middle East mostly escaped being covered by the order, with the exception of Iraq, a nation that has probably suffered more than any other at the hands of Islamic State jihadists and is a key American military partner. Neither Saudi Arabia, 15 of whose nationals were among the 19 men who hijacked aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001, nor Egypt, which is fighting its own Islamist insurgency in Sinai, were subject to the action.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are on opposing sides in many of the region’s major conflicts, such as those in Syria and Yemen. Speaking last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said he would work with Trump toward “containing” Iran. Saudi opposed the nuclear agreement, which has unlocked Iran’s oil exports, and cut diplomatic relations.

Business Impact

Read: Trump’s Immigration Ban Excludes Countries With Business Ties

There’s little commerce between the U.S. and the seven nations, most of which are either at war or poor -- or both. American citizens and entities are already barred from working with Iran under sanctions not removed by the 2015 accord. But Trump’s order will further worry global investors considering a move into Iran but who fear running afoul of U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic. Any investor who’s risk-averse or who has significant interest in also maintaining good relations with the U.S. is going to pause and wait six months to see what happens, said a Western diplomat based in the Gulf, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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