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Trump orders visa ban for family members of Iranian officials

Families of those held in Iran have accused Tehran of "hostage taking" and demanded governments take concerted action.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives for a press conference in New York on Sept. 25, 2019.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Wednesday ordered a visa ban on senior Iranian government officials and their family members, barring them from entering the United States to travel, study or work.

The move comes after families of Americans imprisoned in Iran lobbied the White House for years to deny visas to the children or relatives of top-ranking officials in the Iranian government, as NBC News has previously reported.

There are at least four Americans currently imprisoned in Iran and human rights groups and U.N. monitors say the detentions are arbitrary and baseless.

Trump's proclamation accused Iran of threatening peace and stability in the Middle East and arbitrarily detaining Americans.

"I have determined that it is in the interest of the United States to take action to restrict and suspend the entry into the United States, as immigrants or nonimmigrants, of senior government officials of Iran, and their immediate family members," Trump stated in the order.

The presidential order is one of the first since Robert O’Brien took over as Trump’s national security adviser. O’Brien previously served as the special envoy for hostage affairs, and held numerous meetings with relatives and lawyers for those detained in Iran.

The families had provided the administration and several lawmakers with a list of Iranian nationals living in the U.S. alleged to be the children or relatives of senior Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani himself.

"For years the Iranian regime has criticized and worked against America while at the same time officials of the regime and their family members have quietly taken advantage of America's freedom and prosperity including our excellent educational, employment, entertainment, and cultural opportunities here in the United States," a State Department spokesperson told NBC News.

"Under this proclamation, senior regime officials and their families will no longer be allowed into the United States to reap the benefits of our free society while the Iranian people suffer under the Iranian regime's corruption and mismanagement," the spokesperson said.

Jason Poblete, a lawyer who worked to win the release of Nizar Zakka, a U.S. legal resident who was released in June after four years behind bars in Tehran, said the move was long overdue.

"Access to the United States — whether our financial system or visas — is a privilege, not a right. This is a measured and long-overdue measure to hold malign actors to account," he said.

It was unclear if the order would apply to Iranian relatives who already entered the United States legally or only to those applying for visas in the future.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Iranian mission to the United Nations was not immediately available for comment.

Trump's proclamation was issued amid a war of words between Tehran and Washington. Earlier Wednesday, Rouhani addressed the U.N. General Assembly and accused the United States of "merciless economic terrorism."

Iran has denied imprisoning foreign nationals without cause and says those detained undergo appropriate legal proceedings. Iran objects to the imprisonment of Iranians accused of violating U.S. sanctions, which Tehran regards as illegitimate.