As the US government courts Iranian students, one university briefly says 'no, thanks'

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Aaron Schachter: I’m Aaron Schachter with The World. If the US and Iran were to reach a nuclear deal, US sanctions against Iran could be reduced or even dropped. But as of right now, the sanctions remain in place and they’re taking a big bite out of Iran’s economy. They’re also making it harder for some Iranian students to come here to study. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst recently announced that the school will no longer admit Iranian graduate students to certain science and engineering programs. We asked Jamal Abdi to help us understand what’s going on. He directs the National Iranian American Council.


Jamal Abdi: So, the university is referring to a provision in this 2012 bill that says the secretary of state is authorized to bar Iranian student visas for Iranians who are coming to the US to study a field in nuclear science or related to energy that would then potentially be used back in Iran to advance the Iranian energy sector or the Iranian nuclear program.


Schachter: And the State Department just issued a statement saying “That’s not what we meant.”


Abdi: Well, the State Department, first of all, is charged with applying this policy. So, this is really up to consular officers who are doing visa interviews, for them to, hopefully in a targeted way, figure out “Okay, this student is obviously coming to the United States to learn about nuclear science; that is something that they would then take back to Iran for activities that we don’t want them to be doing, and so we’re not going to be providing a visa.” When you have then a university policing that policy on its own, it becomes something much more broad and unwieldy. They have banned wide swaths of students from studying anything from energy to microbiology and natural sciences, and so it’s such a broad ban that it actually takes what was supposed to be this targeted visa procedure and it makes it this big, broad discriminatory policy.


Schachter: But were there piles of students wanting to come from Iran? How many Iranian students do we have in America now?


Abdi: This was actually the irony: so, we have around 10,000 students or more, it’s the highest number in a generation. This is the result though of efforts by the State Department and by the Obama White House to try to open doors to Iranian students.


Schachter: Have other universities taken it upon themselves like UMass has to bar Iranian students from certain programs?


Abdi: We only know of one other university, Virginia Commonwealth University, that is actually explicitly stating it’s not their policy to admit Iranian students to certain programs. Theirs is much more narrow, it’s related to export controls and not wanting sensitive technologies to be technically exported by allowing Iranian students to interact with them. But in general, what universities have done is notified students--”It’s US government policy that you’re not going to get a visa if you come here to study certain fields.


Schachter: Can Americans go and study in Iran?


Abdi: When the White House was looking to expand ways for Iranians to come here, one of the big obstacles was that the US has a policy of reciprocity. So, we don’t change our visa policies unless the country in question is going to change its visa policies, and the policies for Americans to go study in Iran are pretty cumbersome. So, this is something that the US has done unilaterally; the Obama Administration has seen the value in opening up to Iranian students. We have not seen the same thing on the Iranian side of the equation.


Schachter: Jamal Abdi is with the National Iranian American Council and he joined us from Washington, D.C. Mr. Abdi, thank you so much.


Abdi: Thank you. My pleasure.


Schachter: We asked UMass Amherst to comment. They said that the school was “obliged to respect all federal laws and regulations, including those that restrict the definition of admissible students.”