Keeping Connected With Iran

Students are among those protesting. Amid all the tumult over disputed election, a goal for U.S. higher education is to maintain at least the limited exchanges that now exist.
June 23, 2009

Iran’s universities have historically been sites of protest. Now is no exception -- except the students are not alone.

“Iranian students have always been politically active. It’s nothing new. What’s new is it has engulfed so many sectors of society,” said Ervand Abrahamian, a professor of history at Baruch College who has written extensively on modern Iran.

“Students obviously are involved, but I wouldn't call this whole opposition to what's happening a student movement. I’m actually quite surprised that the press keeps talking about students.... This draws from all segments of society, professionals, workers in the factories in southern Tehran, people working in shops, stores, women.

“One way to limit it is to say it's a student movement. In some ways, that's what the regime would like it depicted as,” Abrahamian said.

“It takes large-scale events to bring about the sort of protests we are seeing now, but what has always struck me doing research in Iran is when you go to the universities, there are always banners up. There’s some issue or another that agitates a group of students, much like in the U.S.,” said Jamsheed Choksy, a professor in the Central Eurasian Studies department at Indiana University. This is despite the risk. Reports of dormitories being raided and students arrested are among the accounts of violence and intimidation that have emerged from Iran in the aftermath of the disputed presidential elections June 12.

“While we may not know the exact numbers of students arrested, or killed, the reports are consistent with what has happened whenever there has been student activism in the Islamic Republic,” Choksy said.

He added: “Essentially, the regime is trying to cut Iran off from the world and once it’s cut off, then, shall we say, quash all dissent and that would include student dissent.”

While the ultimate outcome of the protests is of course uncertain, many in U.S. higher education fervently hope that an even more cut-off Iran will not be an end result. While more than 3,000 Iranian students study in the United States -- 3,060, in 2007-8, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors data -- formal academic exchange between Iran and the United States is limited. But it exists.

“Obviously we would like to see a pretty healthy relationship between Iran and the United States, and that means a healthier relationship between our respective institutions. And so anything that appears to threaten that or to provide disruption, or to make it less possible to have those kinds of dialogues, is a little bit worrisome,” said Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, which in November led a delegation of six American university presidents on a trip to Iran (the presidents of Carnegie Mellon, Cornell and Rice Universities, and the Universities of California at Davis, Florida and Maryland at College Park, participated).

“We believe that the biggest influence that we can have is to educate young people from Iran in the culture of American universities, where notions of academic freedom and free expression and challenging inherited assumptions are a part of what an American educational experience is about. And I think that that translates very well into building similar institutions, building institutions of similar quality and values in Iran."

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis has, since fall 2007, offered a unique, 2+2 dual degree program with the University of Tehran, in which Iranian engineering students split their time between the two institutions and receive degrees from both. There are now 36 Iranian students at IUPUI under the program, said Sara Allaei, assistant dean and director for international services. “We have another group of 16 or 17 students who are scheduled for visa interviews for July 1 and 2 to come for the fall, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed and hoping they don’t have any difficulties getting out of Iran to make their visa appointments in Dubai.” (With no U.S. embassy in Iran, those seeking U.S. visas have to travel outside the country for their interviews with consular officials.)

IUPUI has not sent American students to Iran under the arrangement -- “It’s complex to set up a study abroad program to a country where there are travel warnings for U.S. citizens,” Allaei explained -- but has proposed expansion of the dual degree program to six years, to include the bachelor’s and master’s degrees (under that arrangement, engineering students would spend two years at Tehran, three at IUPUI, then a final one at Tehran). The proposal to expand the exchange is pending approval from the U.S. Treasury Department, necessitated by U.S. sanctions against Iran, Allaei said.

“We are certain that our colleagues at the University of Tehran will want to continue the programs. But of course this is significant unrest that we’re seeing in Iran and how events will play out and where the government will be at the end is I guess anybody’s guess today, isn’t it?” she asked. “I’m certainly not in a position to predict how events will unfold. We know we’ve built a strong foundation for exchange and we sincerely hope it can continue without interruption.”

Tufts University made news for sending a group of students to Iran in 2004, described then as the first official university visit since the revolution in 1979. The New Initiative for Middle East Peace, a student think tank within Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership, was hoping to take a second trip this coming academic year. A month ago, the plan seemed feasible, but now, much less so. “Obviously, we’re watching very, very carefully what’s happening, with great dismay, frankly, hoping that things somehow get better -- to determine whether or not it’s now feasible to send another group in.… At this point [the possibility] seems remote, to put it bluntly, very remote,” said Sherman Teichman, the institute's director.

“We are prudent risk takers, and we know it’s essential to engage in our world and have our students engage even in the most controversial circumstances, but safety is paramount for both the [Tufts] students and the students they would meet. This is a very complicated moment.”

Indeed. Many Iranian students studying in the U.S. have joined the protests, with demonstrations reported at the Universities of Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, Binghamton and Texas A & M Universities, among other campuses, since the election. The Los Angeles Times reported last week on a protest organized by students from a number of Southern California's colleges, including the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California.

“I’ve been politically active for about the last 10 years. I’m only 24 years old though, so you can see how young I started,” said Bijan Ganji, a law student at George Washington University.

“I’ve always played the only role that I can as an Iranian-American which is to help disseminate the wishes and the desires of the people inside the country, outside” -- and, also, Ganji said, to keep those on the inside connected.


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