In Tehran, the ritual is becoming as familiar as the “Death to America” chants at Friday prayers.
It’s the yearly rush to enter a lottery for the chance to immigrate to the United States.
“I want to experience a new life in the U.S. Why not?” said Milad Nazari, a spiky-haired 29-year-old working at a sleepy florist in downtown Tehran.
“‘Death to America’? I don’t care. The U.S. is the most powerful country … so why shouldn’t I take my chance in the lottery?”
This month the State Department opened a five-week window for visa applications from citizens of countries that historically have had low rates of immigration to the United States.
The annual Diversity Visa lottery selects 50,000 winners who, along with their spouses and children under 21, can obtain green cards and become permanent U.S. residents. Last year 9.4 million people and 5 million family members from more than 200 countries sought visas under the program.
Those numbers included nearly 500,000 Iranians and 432,000 spouses and children, among the most of any country, though a slight decrease from 2014. About 5,000 Iranians were selected for visas; only Cameroon and Liberia had more winners.
Entries from Iran have risen sharply from 150,000 in 2007, reflecting both Iranians’ enduring fascination with the United States – despite official propaganda labeling the U.S. the “Great Satan” – and worsening prospects for the middle class in a country ravaged by economic sanctions.
“I have worked hard but not been able to save enough,” said Naser Zaeim, manager of a printing house in Tehran.
Standing under a printing machine and wiping his greasy hands, Zaeim, 45, said he had missed previous lotteries but planned to apply before this year’s Nov. 7 deadline. (Winners are granted visas starting in 2018.)
As a young man Zaeim spent two years as an unskilled laborer in Japan, where he saved enough to buy a small apartment. When he was deported to Iran, his fortunes faltered.
“I see no future here for my three children,” he said.
Saeed Mohammadi, an air-conditioning repairman, entered the lottery unsuccessfully the past two years. While he said he was satisfied in Iran economically, he found the prospect of life in the United States thrilling for his wife and 10-year-old son.
“I earn enough here, but I don’t have enough leisure time,” said Mohammadi, 33. “I want to work and relax too. Here the only option is to drive north for a holiday and rent a vacation home on the Caspian Sea for a few days. There is no fun in Tehran.”
Such comments do not please Iran’s hard-liners, who oppose any warming of relations with the West. They have tried to undermine the 2014 nuclear deal that President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, struck with the United States and other world powers, arguing it has not brought economic relief.
The archconservatives have characterized Iranians with dual citizenship in the West as security threats, and cheered this week when two Iranian Americans were sentenced to 10-year prison terms on vague charges of spying for the U.S. On Wednesday, the Qalam news outlet reported that 35 dual nationals had been dismissed from managerial positions in state-run companies.
American critics of the Diversity Visa program, begun in 1990, say it is an arbitrary way of choosing new immigrants. While applicants must have at least a high school education or its equivalent, or two years of experience in a semi-skilled profession, opponents of the lottery say it does not ensure that new arrivals are prepared to contribute to the U.S.
They say Iran’s hostility to the U.S. also raises questions about whether it should be included in the program.
“Certainly, everything ought to be on the table when it comes to saying to the Iranians, ‘We’re not going to tolerate this behavior,’” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates reducing immigration across the board.
“In general we ought to look at people based on individual merit and give the proper amount of scrutiny to make sure they don’t pose a danger and don’t adhere to ideologies that threaten the safety of this country. You need to put everyone through a rigorous vetting process, which clearly we do not do.”
The State Department says the lottery helps broaden the U.S. immigrant pool.
Guidelines discourage entrants from hiring “consultants” to help fill out the application, which is free to submit. But in Tehran, Internet cafes in many shopping malls tout their services at preparing applications and submitting them through the State Department’s online system.
“Several of our clients have been winners of the green card,” read a sign outside one downtown cafe. Ali, a clerk, said that about 10 people visited every day, paying the equivalent of about $10 for help submitting their lottery entry.
“We help them because they don’t have good command of English or a high-speed Internet connection,” said Ali, who did not give his last name for fear of running afoul of authorities.
Affixed to the wall of the cafe was a newspaper clipping from September 2003, with a story quoting Iran’s central bank governor as saying the government would not allow the U.S. dollar to reach an exchange rate of 9,000 Iranian rials. The rial’s value has since plummeted to one-quarter that amount.
“The youth realize that in 10 years, what will be our economic situation?” said Ali’s father, owner of the cafe, which also helps customers apply for European Union visas.
“Thirteen years ago this mirage was sold to us. So why should our young people believe President Rouhani’s promises of improvement and economic growth?”
Many young Iranians appear to heed that message.
Alireza Bromandi, a tall, broad-shouldered 20-year-old working at his father’s trading company, said he would enter the lottery once he obtains an exemption from mandatory military service, for which he is eligible as the sole son of his parents.
“I’m trying to persuade my rich dad to cash out our capital and transfer it to America,” Bromandi said. “Then I’ll be a businessman in the United States, the land of capitalism. Why should we waste our time here?”
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.
Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia