Study in Tehran

With a deal to limit Iran's nuclear program and relieve sanctions pending, U.S. universities look ahead to new possibilities for cooperation. But even as institutions contemplate sending students there, some flag safety and human rights concerns.

August 18, 2015
Institute of International Education
Participants in the Institute of International Education-led delegation to Iran and their hosts at the University of Tehran

Will American universities send students to Iran on study abroad programs any time soon?

Some institutions are certainly thinking about it.

The election of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, to the Iranian presidency in 2013, and the proposed agreement to impose limits on Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions -- now pending approval by Congress and Iran’s Parliament -- have created a new sense of possibility when it comes to academic cooperation with Iran.

“One by one, there is already since President Rouhani’s election a flow of academic exchange that hasn’t existed for 30 years,” said Allan E. Goodman, the CEO and president of the Institute of International Education (IIE), which led a delegation of officials from five U.S. universities to 13 Iranian universities and research institutes in June. Individual faculty members are traveling to Iran in greater numbers, Goodman said, and over time those teachers are going to want to create opportunities for their students there.

“Provided the nuclear deal gets ratified by our Congress and their Parliament, and provided that the behaviors that are of concern that the nuclear deal addresses continue to work out in a positive way, I think you will see the exchanges grow,” said Goodman. “Eventually they will grow geometrically; for the moment I believe they will grow arithmetically. We’ll have small groups test the waters.”

The Long View

There is a long history of Iranian-American educational exchange. Iran once sent more students to the U.S. than any other country: according to data collected by IIE, there were more than 51,000 Iranian students in the U.S. in 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution. The number declined through the 1980s and 1990s to a low of 1,660 before beginning to rise again -- this despite the additional hurdles Iranian students face in obtaining visas to come to the U.S. (for one thing, they have to leave the country to apply, as there is no U.S. embassy or consulate in Iran).

In 2013-14, there were 10,194 Iranian students in the U.S., making Iran the 12th-largest country of origin for international students at American universities. There were also 1,364 Iranian scholars at U.S. institutions.

Joanna Regulska, the vice president for international and global affairs at Rutgers University, said she participated in the IIE-led delegation in hopes of building on “the little bridges” already existing between her institution and Iran. “We have 85 Iranian students studying at Rutgers, we just had a visit from the chancellor of Tehran University of Medical Sciences, we have Iranian faculty,” Regulska said.

“This was an exciting opportunity to deepen the relationship, to think strategically -- what do we as an institution want to do?”

A briefing paper that came out of the IIE delegation identifies the most promising modes of collaboration between Iranian and U.S. institutions as including short-term research opportunities for Iranian Ph.D. students (who are eligible for government scholarships to spend up to nine months abroad), joint Ph.D. advising, dual degree programs, short-term visiting faculty appointments, virtual team teaching and short-term or summer study abroad courses for U.S. students.

“We are exploring a few different opportunities that will probably materialize in the next year, depending on how things move on the political side,” said Ahmad Ezzeddine, associate vice president for educational outreach and international programs at Wayne State University, and another participant in the IIE delegation. He noted, for example, that some of the universities participating in the delegation are exploring the possibility of jointly creating a study abroad program.

Moving Forward

What will -- or won't -- happen next will likely depend on the fate of the nuclear deal and possible sanctions relief. Current sanctions and export control laws complicate or make impossible many forms of international collaboration, particularly, perhaps, in the area of joint scientific research (the IIE briefing paper includes a lawyer-authored Q&A on what is and isn’t permitted under the current sanctions and export control rules).

That said, certain kinds of collaboration are already possible. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a general license authorizing accredited U.S. universities to enter into student exchange agreements with Iranian universities, and allowing for the import and export of some education-related services. Among other things, the general license permits students at American universities to participate in educational courses and noncommercial research at Iranian universities, though this general authorization does not extend to graduate level course work or research in engineering and the sciences. (Similarly, U.S. law restricts Iranian nationals from obtaining visas to study nuclear or other energy-related fields at American universities. Earlier this year, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst temporarily barred Iranian students from a wide array of science and engineering programs based on a broad interpretation of that law, before reversing its stance).

At least one Iranian-U.S. partnership is resuming after the issuance of the general license in 2014 -- a joint engineering program involving Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the University of Tehran. Sara Kurtz Allaei, the executive director of international affairs at IUPUI, said a joint undergraduate program in which Iranian students spent two years each at the two institutions (a “2+2” program) fizzled out after the university was not able to obtain permission from OFAC to expand it to the graduate level. “I just think there was too much concern about graduate-level engineering and that being politically sensitive, concerns about technology transfer and so forth,” said Allaei. She said that the last of the 45 students completed the joint undergraduate program in 2012 and about a third of them returned to IUPUI for graduate study on their own, independent of any formal university partnership.

But with the issuance of the general license, Allaei said that the two institutions have reached an agreement to resume the 2+2 program at the undergraduate level and establish a long-awaited 1+1 program at the master’s level. “The opportunity for academic institutions to engage more freely with Iranian institutions has really made a difference for us,” said Allaei.

But while partnerships such as this one may attract Iranian students to the U.S., most American universities will be reluctant to send their students to Iran on formal study abroad programs as long as there’s no U.S. embassy or consulate there. IIE reports that there were just two Americans studying abroad in Iran in 2012-13 -- up 100 percent from the one the year before.

Most American universities rely on U.S. State Department travel warnings to varying degrees in assessing study abroad program risks, and there is a warning in place urging Americans to “carefully consider” the risks of travel to Iran. The warning states that the nuclear deal “does not alter the United States' assessment of the risks of travel to Iran for U.S. citizens” and says that “some elements in Iran remain hostile to the United States” and that, as a result, American citizens there “may be subject to harassment or arrest.” The warning refers to unjust detention or imprisonment of U.S. citizens and cites particular risks for dual national U.S.-Iranian citizens and former Muslims who have converted to other religions.

The warning also notes the lack of U.S. embassy or consular relations with Iran and the “extremely limited” capacity of the State Department to assist American citizens in an emergency.

But if study abroad in Iran does happen any time soon, Bill Frederick, the director of Lodestone Safety International, a Massachusetts-based company that consults on health and safety issues in study abroad, said what he would be most worried about is properly selecting and preparing the students who participate. In Iran, same-sex sexual activity is illegal and punishable by death, women must dress modestly and wear a head scarf, and alcohol is prohibited -- all things that American students would have to take seriously. “It would be about making sure that they really understand that they’re not in Kansas anymore,” Frederick said.

A New Era After 36 Years of Enmity?

Formal partnerships between Iranian and U.S. institutions may also raise questions about the ethics of entering into alliances with universities in countries with poor human rights records. In light of persistent concerns about rights for women and religious and ethnic minority groups in Iran -- and in light of the “severe restrictions” on civil liberties and academic freedoms -- will U.S. universities engaging there have to make moral compromises?

In an article in the online publication Commentary, Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute with a Ph.D. in modern Iranian history, called attention to religious discrimination in the Iranian higher education system -- including the exclusion of members of the Baha’i religious minority from universities -- as well as discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. “There are very real reasons why U.S.-Iranian relations have been strained for 36 years,” writes Rubin, who argues that administrators from U.S. and Iranian universities entering into partnerships should sign “statements ensuring that there will be no discrimination toward any student based on his religion, sexual preference or any other factor.”

Granted, Iranian universities would be in no position “to countermand government policy” and ensure that such nondiscrimination pledges are adhered to, Rubin said in an email interview. “Nondiscrimination pledges -- and the likely refusal or inability of university administrators to sign and respect them -- will simply serve to highlight the problems so relationships are built on reality rather than blind enthusiasm,” he said.

“No matter how enthusiastic people are to open relations, we cannot deny the fact that there are certain serious issues -- both political issues and some religious,” said Fatemeh Keshavarz, director of both the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures and the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. At the same time, she said that she sees academic collaboration as helping “to create an environment in which a lot of matters come into the open …. I see this as creating an environment in which discrimination of all kinds becomes harder and harder.”

Keshavarz hopes that this moment might prove to be a boon to Persian language study in the U.S. And she is excited about the possibility that her own Persian language students might someday soon be able to study in Iran. Noting that it’s difficult to find an immersive Persian environment for students outside of Iran, Keshavarz said Maryland has experimented with sending students to Turkey and Tajikistan in the past but now offers its capstone language immersion experience at a house in Washington, D.C.

“There’s a lot of excitement on both sides,” said Keshavarz, who is in conversations about potential partnerships with Shahid Beheshti University and the University of Tehran’s Faculty of World Studies and is also exploring the possibility of virtual team teaching. She contrasted the feeling now to one she encountered on a trip to her hometown university, Shiraz University, in the late 1990s. At that time, she said, there was an interest in collaboration but “also a sense of, ‘is it going to work, are we really able to do this?’ But now I don’t sense that hesitation.”

“It’s about as good as I’ve seen it since 1979,” said David Woodward, the president and CEO of Associates in Cultural Exchange, a nonprofit organization in Seattle, and a longtime observer of exchange opportunities in Iran, where he lived until age 11. But while there’s been an uptick in discussions and university delegations, Woodward echoed the sentiment that going forward much depends on the two countries ratifying the nuclear deal. “From the Iranian government side via the individuals that I’m currently engaged with, absolutely everything hinges on this,” he said.

“This is presumably the beginning of an entirely new era, in their view, of U.S.-Iran relations.”


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