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U.S. revises visa policy in gesture to Iranians

By Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some Iranian students may seek two-year, multiple-entry U.S. visas, the State Department said on Friday, giving them greater freedom to travel to the United States in a gesture to improve people-to-people ties.

The step is the latest in a series by President Barack Obama's administration to reach out to the Iranian people and, in particular, to young Iranians despite the long enmity between the two countries.

Students from Iran, which the United States accuses of seeking nuclear weapons, sponsoring terrorism and brutally repressing its people, previously were eligible only for three-month, single-entry visas.

The new guidelines apply to Iranians and their dependents applying to study in "nonsensitive, nontechnical fields" -- those that would not contribute to Iran's nuclear, missile or other weapons-related activities, a U.S. official said.

Under the revised policy, the visas could be valid for two years and allow Iranian students to come and go as often as they wished in that period without applying for a new visa.

Whether they may actually enter the United States and exactly how long they may stay is decided by immigration officers at their port of entry, U.S. officials said.

In a video address, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear the U.S. gesture aimed to reach out to young Iranians, many of whom turned out in mass protests against the disputed 2009 reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Those protests, the biggest challenge to the Islamic state since the 1979 revolution that ended the authoritarian rule of the Shah of Iran, were crushed by Iranian security forces who jailed scores of demonstrators.

"We want more dialogue and more exchange with those of you who are shaping Iran's future," Clinton said in the message, which the State Department said was posted on Youtube in both English and Farsi.

"Because as long as the Iranian government continues to stifle your potential, we will stand with you," she added. "We will continue to look for new ways to fuel more opportunities for real change in Iran."

One U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the visa change aimed to make good on the administration's pledge of seeking to engage ordinary Iranians.

Obama's efforts to persuade Iran to cease its suspected pursuit of nuclear arms have so far failed and he has led a push to tighten U.S. and international sanctions on Tehran.

Iran says its nuclear program is to generate electricity, not produce weapons.

In the latest of his annual "Nowruz" messages to mark the Persian new year, Obama on March 20 accused Iran of a two-year "campaign of intimidation and abuse" against its own people.

"These choices do not demonstrate strength; they show fear," he said, aiming his message at young Iranians. "Though times may seem dark, I want you to know that I am with you."

(Editing by Paul Simao)

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