It did not matter that Arash served years before the terrorist designation or that he was assigned a noncombat role, playing clarinet in a marching band. Earlier this month, the couple received a letter from the State Department telling them his permanent residency visa had been refused, she said. Hundreds of other Iranian men — some with American wives or family members in the United States — have received similar letters over the past two years or were expecting them soon, according to Mahdis and other relatives who share stories and advice in several online chat groups.
President Biden has signaled his intent to break with Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach toward Iran, which included sweeping sanctions, as the new administration seeks to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and bring Iran back into compliance. But a repeal or revision of the IRGC designation could be politically delicate for Biden, who faces domestic pressure to impose tougher terms on Iran even if the United States rejoins the nuclear agreement.
Under Trump, U.S. officials took a hard line with Iran in part to force it to abandon expansionist military policies in the Middle East, in which the IRGC plays a leading role. Critics said Trump’s pressure campaign did little to change Iran’s behavior and that some of the punitive measures were counterproductive, overzealous or unusually broad.
The Revolutionary Guard designation marked the first time Washington had branded a foreign government entity a terrorist group, a move with potentially sweeping consequences because it could invite other countries to impose similar sanctions on the U.S. military or other parts of the U.S. government.
Depending on interpretation, the policy targeted not just IRGC leaders and operatives but everyone associated with the sprawling security organization, from accountants to clarinet players, who had served since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
A State Department spokesman said in an email message that the terrorism designation “remains,” and as a result, IRGC members were ineligible for U.S. visas, along with anyone who provides “material support to, solicited funds for, or recruits members for the IRGC.” Asked whether the United States was considering any changes to the current policy, the spokesman said, “We do not discuss or confirm internal deliberations of our designation process.”
Conscripts and their relatives say the way the designation is interpreted is unfair.
Beginning at age 18, Iranian men are required to complete 18 to 24 months of military service. They are not allowed to select which branch of the military they enter. Iranian officials have said that roughly 400,000 men show up for their compulsory service each year and are sent to either the army, a law enforcement agency or the IRGC. The latter has 640,000 soldiers or reservists, including its domestic Basij militia, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
“It’s unfair because it’s mandatory,” Mahdis said in a telephone interview from Iran, where she was visiting Arash. While some Iranian men are exempt for medical reasons or because they are only sons, for everyone else, there is no opting out. Proof of military service is vital — to obtain a passport, to get a job, even to buy a motorcycle — according to Mahdis, who, along with others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld for safety reasons.
Arash, who had loved music since he was a teenager, ended up playing in the IRGC band and teaching music to other soldiers, she said.
Mahdis still lives in California. Her frequent separations from Arash since they were married seven years ago have taken a toll, she said, causing her to miss work opportunities and the couple to spend a fortune traveling to see each other. Now that his U.S. visa has been denied, they were considering other options — living in Turkey, perhaps, or somewhere in Europe.
“My problem is, I grew up in America,” she said. “My childhood was there, my memories, my cartoons. I want my kids to have the same experience.”
Another IRGC veteran, Mehrdad, 53, worked as an architect when he did his compulsory service nearly three decades ago, said his wife, Saedeh. It was all but a footnote in their lives, which included sending a daughter to one of Iran’s most prestigious medical engineering programs before she went to study in the United States.
Saedeh, 52, was able to get a U.S. visa, but Mehrdad’s application was rejected after he spoke about his military service during his consular interview. The IRGC was not listed on his military card, “but since we had sworn to tell the truth and being sent to military service is compulsory — and we did not consider ourselves part of that organization — my husband told them,” Saedeh said.
She has given up her job as a speech therapist to shuttle between her daughter in the United States and her husband in Iran. “It is absolutely unfair that he got rejected according to a law that should not apply to him,” she said.
U.S. steps up pressure
When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the IRGC designation in April 2019, he cited the group’s attacks against the United States in Lebanon in the 1980s and the work of its operatives to “destabilize” the Middle East “from Iraq to Lebanon to Syria and to Yemen.”
“The IRGC masquerades as a legitimate military organization, but none of us should be fooled,” Pompeo said.
From its beginnings as a force parallel to the army after the Iranian revolution, the corps ballooned in size and stature during the Iran-Iraq war and became a powerful political and economic player as Iran recovered during the postwar years, according to Narges Bajoghli, a professor of Middle East studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran over the years have actually helped to enrich the organization, which has control of Iran’s borders and the capital required to profit from legal as well as illicit trade, she said. Subgroups of the IRGC include the Quds Force, which is focused on clandestine overseas operations, including training and directing proxy forces in Syria that support President Bashar al-Assad, and in Iraq, where Iranian-backed militias have carried out deadly attacks on U.S. forces.
The Trump administration’s terrorism designation appeared focused on the activities of the Quds Force and its operatives. But “you don’t have people doing their mandatory service in those roles. You are standing guard. You are pushing papers,” Bajoghli said.
Paris Etemadi Scott, an immigration lawyer and legal director of the California-based Pars Equality Center, represents three clients who have been refused admission to the United States because of the designation. She said her organization and a law firm are preparing to file a lawsuit challenging the policy on the grounds that the “creep into mandatory service needs to be clarified.” The suit would not contest the overall sanctioning of the IRGC.
Elham, 29, an American doctor, witnessed her husband’s military service firsthand. She joined her husband, Yaser, also a doctor, when the IRGC sent him to a rural village near Iran’s border with Pakistan a few years ago.
Yaser, now 30, applied for his U.S. visa soon after the couple married in 2016. He sat for his consular interview three years later and is still waiting for a response. The couple have nervously been watching the conversation in the chat rooms, as tales of rejection pile up.
“To be honest, we don’t have a Plan B,” said Elham, who lives in Falls Church, Va. “I am a U.S. citizen. I am entitled to bring my spouse there.”