Ex-E.U. Foreign Policy Chief Runs Into Obama-Era Visa Restrictions

By Patrick Goodenough | June 26, 2018 | 4:23am EDT
Javier Solana, a former Spanish foreign minister, served as NATO secretary-general from 1995 to 1999 and as European Union foreign policy chief from 1999 to 2009. (Photo: Solana/Twitter)

(CNSNews.com) – A prominent European politician planning to travel to the United States has run into visa difficulties over a visit he paid to Iran five years ago – the result not of President Trump’s excoriated travel bans, but of restrictions put in place under his predecessor.

That didn’t stop Spain’s leading daily from blaming Trump for Javier Solana’s visa troubles.

El Pais attributed them to the fact the veteran Spanish Socialist politician “had previously traveled to Iran, which is included on American President Donald Trump’s blacklist.”

Solana, a former foreign minister who served as NATO secretary-general in the 1990s and then as European Union foreign policy chief until 2009, told Spanish media he had been refused an electronic visa waiver to enter the U.S.

Spain is one of 38 visa waiver program (VWP) countries whose citizens may visit the U.S. without applying in advance for a visitor visa. Instead, travelers from VWP countries aiming to visit for up to 90 days apply in advance for an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which usually then secures them admission at a port of entry.

When Solana, a Brooking Institution distinguished fellow, applied for an ESTA the application was kicked out, he said, because he had visited Iran in 2013.

He has not been denied entry to the U.S., but must now go through the process of applying for a visa, as most foreigners around the world wanting to visit are required to do.

Solana told Spanish television the decision was “petty.”

He’d visited Tehran in 2013 to attend President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration – on behalf, he said, of all those who had negotiated with Iran over its nuclear program. (As E.U. foreign policy chief, Solana was during the Bush administration centrally involved in earlier efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff.)

In December 2015, President Obama signed into law an omnibus spending bill that included legislation requiring an additional layer of visa screening for any VWP country national who had visited Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan since March 2011.

The restrictions also applied to citizens of VWP countries who hold dual Iranian, Syrian, Sudanese or Iraqi citizenship.

The legislation, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, was born out of concerns about security threats in the wake of ISIS-linked terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Iran, Syria and Sudan are all designated state-sponsors of terror, and Iraq was at the time an ISIS stronghold.

The measure gave the Department of Homeland Security 60 days to add to the four any other country determined to be a source of legitimate terrorism concerns. Two months later Obama’s DHS duly added Somalia, Yemen and Libya.

According to the DHS the restrictions on VWP country nationals can in general be waived for government, NGO or media representatives traveling on official business.

Solana, however, was no longer attached to either the E.U. or NATO when he attended Rouhani’s inauguration in 2013.

“Strange that our American friends are discovering only now this Obama regulation,” tweeted French ambassador to the U.S., Gerard Araud. “Scores of European scholars, parliamentarians and business people have already faced the same constraints.”

The Obama-era restrictions were cited by Trump in his 2017 travel executive orders.

The executive order issued in March last year – after federal courts placed holds on the original one, issued in late January – noted that the countries targeted “were designated by Congress and the Obama administration as posing national security risks with respect to visa-free travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.”

“Each of these countries is a state sponsor of terrorism, has been significantly compromised by terrorist organizations, or contains active conflict zones,” the order stated.

The countries whose nationals were temporarily barred from visiting under the March order were Syria, Sudan, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. (Iraq was included in the January order but excluded in March, with the administration explaining that the Iraqi government had agreed to increase visa vetting cooperation with the U.S.)

In a presidential proclamation last September, five of those six countries were subject to varying levels of travel restrictions (Sudan was excluded), together with Chad, Venezuela and North Korea.

The U.S. Supreme Court has been considering the legality of the travel restrictions as they apply to the five Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

It’s expected to issue its ruling this week.

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