At US competition, Iranian law students 'surprised' by reception

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Article Summary
With the visa ban on hold, a moot court competition brought seven Iranian law students to Washington to debate topical issues, sharpen their skills and meet real Americans.

WASHINGTON — For seven young Iranians participating in an international moot court competition April 9-15 in Washington, success consisted of simply getting here.

Even though their team didn’t make it into the finals, the Iranians — five who made arguments, a coach and one former participant who served as a judge — told Al-Monitor they were thrilled just to have gotten visas.

Twice, US courts have stayed efforts by the Donald Trump administration to restrict entrance by nationals of first seven, then six primarily Muslim nations, including Iran. However, the US State Department has continued to process some visas for Iranian athletes and others seeking to travel here for academic and cultural exchanges.

The Iranian law students told Al-Monitor they are gratified by the warm reception they have received.

“What makes me enthusiastic about the whole process is that I’m meeting everyone from all over the world,” Bahar Babapour, 18, told Al-Monitor. “The Americans are really showing that what they think of Iranians is different from what their lovely president thinks of us. They know there are bad people and good people in all countries and that if we are here for this competition, we cannot be one of the bad ones.”

In Iran, unlike the United States, students can opt to study law as undergraduates. Babapour, who is from Dezful in southern Iran, is a freshman at Allameh Tabataba’i University in Tehran. Her team was one of two in Iran that qualified for the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition, which has attracted law students around the world for 58 years.

However, a second team, from the School of International Relations, which is run by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, did not make it to Washington even though it beat Allameh Tabataba’i in an internal competition.

Maryam Jazini, the president of the New York chapter of the Iranian American Bar Association and the national administrator for the moot court competition, said the top team failed to get visas in time to participate.

Because the US Embassy in Tehran has been closed since the 1979-81 hostage crisis and no American diplomats are stationed in Iran, Iranians who want to travel to the United States must go to a neighboring country such as Armenia or the United Arab Emirates for a visa interview. They often have to go a second time to obtain the visa itself. It is a time-consuming, expensive and anxiety-generating ordeal.

“Coming here is the hardest for the Iranian teams,” said Ali Akbar Masoudi Lamraski. Lamraski, who competed in the moot court in 2015 on behalf of Shahid Beheshti University, another top Iranian school, is participating in the current competition as a judge.

Even before this year’s added complications, the process has been fraught with challenges.

“I spent 24 days in Dubai in 2015 just to get my visa,” Lamraski said. He said the anxiety has an impact on the ability of Iranians to prepare for the competition. “Even if you’re sure you’re going to win the competition, you still have lots of doubts about whether I’m going to get the visa, whether it’s going to come on time,” he said.

The Iranians are among participants from nearly 90 countries and more than 550 law schools. The competition simulates fictional disputes between countries before the International Court of Justice, a UN body located in The Hague. The students prepare both oral and written arguments on various sides of particular questions.

This year’s topics are particularly relevant for Iran and the Middle East in general, dealing with urgent environmental and cultural matters.

Moein Arefifard, who is in his last semester studying international law at Allameh Tabataba’i and who coached the team, said the topics included how countries should share water resources equitably (a major issue for Iran and its neighbors, especially Afghanistan), how to preserve cultural heritage and prevent artifacts from being illegally removed (a major problem especially in times of war) and how to compensate nations for accepting refugees from places afflicted by drought (one of the underlying causes of the 2011 uprising in Syria).

Babapour said she thought the competition could help shape future rulings in international law. “In law school, you’re always reading theoretical stuff, but when you join this sort of moot court, you see there is actually something you can do and all the studying you are doing is going to pay off,” she said.

Nima Shojaei, 21, another team member, said the competition “will make me think better. Maybe if I continue experiencing this kind of opportunity, I’ll be more useful for my country in the future.”

The Iranian American Bar Association facilitated the students’ trip, something for which they all expressed gratitude.

“We all want to thank Leila [Mansouri],” the president of the Washington chapter of the association, Arefifard said. “If not for her, we would not be here right now.”

Mansouri told Al-Monitor that this is the third year her organization has sponsored Iranian students and that it was a boon for the participants and for the Americans and other nationalities they encounter.

“Anytime a student can leave their country and meet others from around the world, it’s beneficial,” Mansouri said.

It is also possible that the Iranians and the Americans could someday face each other in court to argue some of the commercial and other disputes still outstanding between the two adversaries. Or they could be participants in a successful diplomatic negotiation like the one that led to the recent nuclear deal.

Jazini, who first got Iran into the competition in 2015 and who travels to Iran to administer the local contests, said she was pleased that at least one of the Iranian teams was able to come.

“I think it’s really important for both [Iranians and Americans],” she told Al-Monitor. “The Iranians are exposed to international law in an international setting. For the US side, it breaks down barriers that are otherwise hard to break.”

The Iranians said that, visa issues aside, they had been pleasantly surprised by their reception, including their treatment by US Customs officials.

“It was not as bad as I expected,” said Sima Ghaffari, 23, another member of the team. Ghaffari, who arrived first in Los Angeles to see relatives, added, “In LA, the people are so kind and smile at you. It gives you positive energy. Here, the nationality, the color isn’t important. Just being human is important.”

“I’m really enjoying the experience,” Babapour added. “I’ve seen things I’ve only seen in movies and things I’ve only read about in books. It’s like living the dream.”

Found in: court, visa, competition, academics, donald trump, us-iranian relations, travel ban

Barbara Slavin is a columnist for Al-Monitor and director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. On Twitter: @BarbaraSlavin1

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