An Iranian woman walks past a mural on the wall of the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran. Photo: AFP / ATTA KENARE
An Iranian woman walks past a mural on the wall of the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

Living in a highly connected world means people take pride in assets that were less relevant and charming 50 years ago. Today, social mobility, freedom of movement, connectivity and open borders are privileges that are cherished by the citizens of the 21st century.

It is no longer possible for nation-states to erect walls of protectionism along their borders and preclude the flow of people and information. Even for a country like North Korea, which to many typifies isolation and autarky within the framework of a revolutionary Juche doctrine, foreign relations are critical, ensuring the survival of the nation in a hyper-connected, radically changed world.

The Henley Passport Index, a global ranking of the most travel-friendly passports, released its latest report in July. The inventory shows the passports of Japan, Singapore, Germany and South Korea are the most powerful in the world, allowing their holders to travel to dozens of countries visa-free. The Japanese, for instance, have visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 191 territories worldwide.

The Iranian passport, tied with that of Bangladesh, occupies 186th place as one of the world’s most toothless travel documents.

Ironically, many of the 41 countries to which the holders of Iranian passports are nominally permitted to travel without obtaining a visa don’t have any diplomatic representation in Iran, and in many of them, hardly any Iranian citizen sets foot. There are not even direct flights between the Iranian capital and these destinations: Dominica, Micronesia, Seychelles and Cook Islands.

The fragility of the Iranian passport vividly mirrors the status quo of the country’s foreign relations, characterized by tensions with neighboring and distant countries, the small size of the Islamic Republic’s diplomatic network, lack of representation in international organizations and bodies and, to put it bluntly, being a pariah state owing to a polemical nuclear program that has solicited international sanctions against every sector of the Iranian economy.

Thousands if not millions of Iranian citizens have lived through the distressing experience of lining up in tedious queues before the compounds of foreign embassies in Tehran since the crack of dawn until the last moments of business hours, waiting to submit their visa applications to visit a country for as briefly as three to four days – to attend a conference, visit a family member or receive medical treatment – or even apply for what might be totally alien to the inhabitants of the Schengen zone: “transit visas” that merely enable the entrant to pass through the transit area of a foreign airport.

And let’s not be dragged into narrating the inauspicious story of middlemen who cash in on the zeal of people for traveling overseas and buy and sell visa appointment slots, collude with foreign embassies to facilitate or accelerate the issuance of visas, and occasionally represent travel agencies that charge gazillions of dollars in return for a guaranteed visa, among other evils.

Even though it is documented that no Iranian citizen has been identified to have been involved in a terrorist attack on US soil for at least three decades, and while the same holds true about Europe and the rest of the developed world, which means it is genuinely surreal to think of Iranian citizens as security threats, the nationals of Iran are subject to some of the most stringent visa-screening regimes in the world.

Unavailability of interview and appointment slots, requirement to submit stacks of supporting documents including financial guarantees, and lengthy waiting times deny many Iranians the chance to travel, discourage many others from going forward with their travel plans and exhaust those who finally get the visa stamped into their passports.

Iranian people’s penchant for trouble-free and convenient international travel without needing to jump through hoops compels many of them to embrace the citizenship of other countries, including some of Iran’s neighbors, which are not actually developed or high-income nations, but offer their citizens credible passports and greater civil liberties.

I have personally heard the experiences of people who have pulled out all the stops against the odds and accepted the citizenship of Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan or the United Arab Emirates solely with the aim of enjoying the blessing of international mobility. Some of them were even financially challenged, lacking any education or experience with the language and culture of those countries, but had come to the realization that “remaining” an Iranian citizen would not benefit them any more.

Foreign policy reforms

Aggressive and serious reforms are imperative to resuscitate Iran’s ailing foreign policy and deliver a reliable passport. These reforms will serve the purposes of preserving the links of Iranian citizens with their home country and blocking further waves of human-capital flight, bailing Iran out of isolation, pacifying turmoil in the Middle East, stabilizing the global petroleum markets and reasserting Iran as a responsible regional actor, rather than a misbehaving outcast.

Iran maintains bilateral diplomatic relations with upward of 90 countries, and there are 97 foreign missions in the capital Tehran. This leaves out nearly 100 United Nations member states that are missing from the overseas calculations of the Islamic Republic. Important names could be found on the list of countries with which Iran is either at odds or has never approached to forge bilateral relations.

If we exclude Israel, which has been Iran’s arch-nemesis for the past four decades, and the United States, which is the ruling conservatives’ favorite bogeyman liable to blame for the entire world’s menaces, states as diverse as Albania, Canada, Colombia, Estonia, Iceland, Mongolia, Peru and Singapore have no diplomatic representation in Iran. Likewise, Iranian embassies and consulates are absent in many important capitals across Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas.

Canada, for example, despite hosting one of the largest communities of Iranian diaspora, has customarily had fraught relations with the Iranian government, exacerbated by the mysterious death of the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi while in prison in Tehran in 2003, which sent mutual ties into a tailspin.

Disputes between the two governments culminated in the radical decision by the Stephen Harper government in 2012 to close down the Canadian embassy in Tehran and expel Iranian diplomats from Ottawa, citing Iran’s nuclear program, its material support for the embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and its human-rights record. The 2011 census revealed that around 160,000 Iranians live in Canada. The Guardian has put the number at 400,000.

Oddly enough, Iran, a major Islamic country, has long had edgy relations with a number of Muslim nations: At present, there are no bilateral ties with heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Morocco, as well as a couple of less influential states, Bahrain and Sudan, while relations with other powers of the Muslim world such as Egypt and Jordan continue to be bleak, with little progress made, even under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, in giving a boost to the exchanges that seem to have been put on the back burner.

Even when mutual relations exist, they are not tension-free and steady. In recent years, Iran has been embroiled in grave diplomatic standoffs with Australia, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Sweden over major sticking points, mostly the detention of dual nationals of these countries by Iran.

A passport is more than a simple identity deed or travel document. It demarcates your standing as a global citizen and sometimes the degree of respect with which you are treated outside the borders of your home country. And foreign relations are not an ornamental nicety that can be ignored or dealt with nonchalantly.

While more Iranians struggle to find opportunities abroad and resort to unusual workarounds such as buying the passport of St Kitts and Nevis or the island of Grenada, or paying visa brokers US$5,000 to acquire Schengen visas without showing up at one of the European embassies, it appears that the restructuring of Iran’s foreign relations should be set in motion before long.

Iran needs to embark on détente with those countries with which its relations are muddled, set the stage for a full-fledged, sober rapprochement with its neighbors and rivals in the Muslim world, start to expand its diplomatic apparatus and initiate relations with more countries that are popular destinations for Iranian students, businesspeople, academicians and professionals.

Eventually, it must determinedly negotiate relaxed travel arrangements for Iranian nationals with countries that receive Iranian visitors and residents.

When running for president in 2013, Rouhani promised to recover the prestige of the Iranian passport. His pitch appealed to millions of Iranians. Now, well into his final year as a lame-duck president, Rouhani has obviously not been successful in living up to his words.

But it is not too late. Although Iran’s foreign relations are in dire straits, this adversity could be upended through calibrated diplomacy, pragmatic decision-making and understanding the substance of national interests.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.