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'We've Become Hostages': U.S. Blacklisting Of Revolutionary Guards Splits Iranian Families


Dozens of people took part in a February 22 protest outside the White House. The demonstrators called on the Biden administration to end the ban on former IRGC conscripts from entering the United States.

Three years ago, Shadi fulfilled a lifelong dream when she obtained a coveted research position at the prestigious Harvard Medical School.

Now, the Iranian national is considering giving up her postdoctoral fellowship because her husband has been barred from entering the United States.

In 2019, the Trump administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The blacklisting resulted in economic and travel sanctions for the IRGC -- the elite branch of Iran's armed forces -- and for individuals and entities associated with it, including hundreds of thousands of former IRGC conscripts.

Among them was Shadi’s husband, who served his mandatory military service with the IRGC more than a decade ago. Nearly a year after first applying for a U.S. visa, he was informed in 2020 that his application had been rejected.

Members of a special IRGC force attend a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran on April 29.
Members of a special IRGC force attend a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran on April 29.

“[Conscripts] are being punished for something that’s beyond their control,” said Shadi, who did not reveal her full name due to the sensitivity of the issue. She told RFE/RL that the U.S. travel ban should differentiate between IRGC members and former conscripts who were compelled to serve.

All Iranian men from 18 to 49 are required to complete 21 months of military service in one of the three branches of the military: the police, army, or the IRGC. The men do not decide in which branch they serve.

All Iranian men aged 18 to 49 are required to complete 21 months of military service, but do not get to decide in which branch they serve.
All Iranian men aged 18 to 49 are required to complete 21 months of military service, but do not get to decide in which branch they serve.

Shadi and her husband are not alone. The U.S. blacklisting of the IRGC has affected hundreds of families, often splitting husbands from their wives and children.

“We’ve become hostages to the hostilities between Iran and the U.S.,” said Peyman, who did his military service with the IRGC three decades ago. “We’re ordinary people who have nothing to do with the IRGC.”

Peyman’s parents and brother are U.S. citizens. He applied for a U.S. visa in 2018 but after waiting for two years, his application was rejected.

“Our future and the future of our children are being affected,” Peyman, who only provided his first name, told RFE/RL from Iran.

'No One Is Listening'

Peyman said he had hoped that U.S. President Joe Biden would remove the designation, which experts have said was largely symbolic and has done little to curb the IRGC’s activities, including its alleged support for militant groups in the region.

But recent U.S. media reports have suggested that Biden is reluctant to drop the designation, which has become a major stumbling block in efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. Tehran has demanded that the IRGC be delisted.

Many of those affected by the FTO designation have been closely following the yearlong nuclear talks and are growing desperate for a resolution.

“We’ve become forcefully involved in an issue that we didn’t want to be a part of,” said Ellie, a U.S. citizen who has been separated from her Iranian husband, a physician who served as a conscript in the IRGC several years before the FTO designation.

“As a U.S. citizen, I’m entitled to bring my husband here,” said Ellie, who did not disclose her full name for fear it could endanger her husband in Iran. “But I haven’t been able to.”

“I feel no one is listening to us,” Ellie told RFE/RL. “We’re suffering. I have become depressed and it’s also very difficult for my husband, who wants to move here.”

Ellie was among dozens of people who took part in a February 22 protest outside the White House. The demonstrators called on the Biden administration to end the ban on former IRGC conscripts from entering the United States.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken admitted that “as a practical matter, the designation does not really gain [the United States] much.”

Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the main impact of the FTO is a travel ban on IRGC members, including conscripts, even though “the people who are the real bad guys have no intention of traveling here anyway.”

'Pay The Price'

Ryan Costello, policy director at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), said Blinken’s admission suggests that the “designation itself was meant for nonstate actors, rather than foreign militaries, and that the U.S. government needs to approach this issue with more flexibility.”

“Given that the FTO designation is retroactive over decades, the visa ban would be applied to more than a million former Iranian conscripts,” said Costello. “We know that there have been hundreds of these denials, but it is possible that there have been more given the expansive scope of the restriction.”

Among those whose U.S. visa applications have been rejected is Mehrdad, an architect who did his military service with the IRGC. His daughter lives in the United States.

“I have to pay the price for being a conscript with the IRGC some 24 or 25 years ago,” Mehrdad, who only disclosed his first name, told RFE/RL. “I wasn’t even a member.”

Mehrdad’s wife, Saeideh, constantly travels back and forth from Iran and the United States. She laments that the IRGC designation has split her family.

“I don’t care if the IRGC remains on the [FTO] list or not,” she told RFE/RL from Iran. “It has nothing to do with us. But the issue of conscripts should be separate.”

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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 the author 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.

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