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How Does It Feel? Zarif Gets No Sympathy For Not Being Able To Travel In New York

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif attends a meeting among remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal at UN headquarters in New York on September 25.

When Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted pictures of himself video-chatting with the country's United Nations envoy, who is in a New York hospital fighting cancer, he wanted to highlight U.S. travel restrictions on him and gain sympathy at a time of heightened tensions with the United States.

Instead, many Iranians living abroad reminded Zarif on social media that they face similar restrictions due to repression in the Islamic republic of Iran that makes it risky for them to visit their homeland.

The U.S. State Department said it would allow Zarif, who was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, to visit UN Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi at the hospital only if Tehran released one of several U.S. citizens that Washington says Tehran has "wrongfully detained."

The decision was blasted by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, who said the United States had taken humanitarian issues "hostage" for political reasons.

Zarif, who’s been blacklisted by the United States and whose movement is restricted to six street blocks within the area between UN headquarters, Iran's UN mission, and the Iranian ambassador's residence, said on Twitter on September 28 that “Thanks to technology” he was able “to see and talk to my friend of 40 years and our UN ambassador Ravanchi, who is in hospital here in New York only a few blocks away.”

The Twitter-savvy Zarif also posted several pictures of himself video-chatting with Ravanchi, who was seen lying on a hospital bed.

Such images were all too familiar to many Iranians outside the country who are not able to visit Iran due to fear of arrest or harassment by the clerical establishment and who have been forced to use Skype, FaceTime, and other online tools to keep in touch with their friends and loved ones.

Many of them -- including journalists and activists -- took to Twitter to highlight Iran’s repressive policies that keep them separated from their kin during happy and sad occasions.

“The last time I saw my father it was through this technology that kept being cut off; he was in a coma on a hospital bed. Then a handful of soil and stones [at his funeral],” said BBC Persian journalist and producer Maryam Afshang who added that she was not able to say goodbye to her father before he passed away.

"No right to say goodbye, no kissing of his hand and white hair, not even sitting at his grave," Afshang added on Twitter.

Smear Campaigns, Harassment, And Intimidation

Iran has pressured journalists working for Persian-language media outside the country -- including RFE/RL’s Radio Farda and the BBC's Persian Service -- and their families through smear campaigns, harassment, and intimidation.

In 2017, Iran’s Judiciary ordered an asset freeze for 152 BBC Persian current and former staff.

A number of Iranian intellectuals and activists have been detained in Iran in recent years after returning home to see ailing parents -- including satirist Kiumars Marzban -- who has been sentenced to 23 years in prison after visiting Iran in 2017.

Iran has also prevented journalists, activists, and others from leaving the country after they arrive on a trip home.

Restrictions have been also imposed on their families, who in some cases have been interrogated and detained.

Last week, U.S.-based Iranian activist Masih Alinejad, who campaigns against the hijab that women are required to wear, said three members of her family, including her brother, were arrested in northern Iran in an attempt by officials to silence her.

Writing on Twitter, New York Times reporter Farnaz Fassihi reminded Zarif that Maryam Mombeini -- an Iranian-Canadian citizen who’s been prevented from leaving the country for the past two years -- also must go online and use video calls to keep in touch with her two sons in Canada.

Mombeini has been prevented from leaving Iran following the suspicious death in custody of her husband, prominent environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami who was arrested on allegations of espionage.

“What is her crime?” Fassihi asked Zarif on Twitter.

Zarif was also reminded of the plight of U.S. citizens who have been detained in Iran, including former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared during a 2007 trip to Iran’s Kish Island while on an unapproved CIA mission.

Iranian officials have publicly claimed they don’t have any information about Levinson’s whereabouts while Washington has repeatedly called on Iran to allow him to return to his family.

“It’s nice that you recognize how important it is to be able to see and speak with the ones you love. We are still waiting to see and talk to our father Bob Levinson, held by your country for 12 years with no human rights,” said a tweet addressed to Zarif by the @helpboblevinson Twitter account, which is maintained by Levinson’s children.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.