The Cable

Dispute Over Iran’s Nuclear Program Arrives in the Halls of a U.S. University

Disputes over Iran's nuclear program typically take place in halls of diplomacy. This week a dispute arrived in the halls of American higher education.

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The fight over Iran’s nuclear program has largely taken place in halls of diplomacy in New York and Europe. This week, it arrived on an American college campus.

This month, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst stopped admitting Iranian citizens to its science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. The university cited the 2012 Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, which contains this language:

“The Secretary of State shall deny a visa to, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall exclude from the United States, any alien who is a citizen of Iran that the Secretary of State determines seeks to enter the United States to participate in coursework at an institution of higher education … to prepare the alien for a career in the energy sector of Iran or in nuclear science or nuclear engineering or a related field in Iran.”

According to a Feb. 6 document titled “UMass Amherst Procedures on Admission of Iranian Students,” the university said it interpreted that part of the law to mean that citizens of Iran aren’t eligible for U.S. visas if they want to participate in seven STEM programs that could benefit Tehran’s nuclear program.

A State Department official told Foreign Policy that the department believes this is the first time an American university cited the law in prohibiting the admission of Iranian students into graduate STEM programs. The official said the university’s decision was made without consultation with the State Department.

The backlash was immediate once the university’s decision was made public. “Considering last year 10,000 students came from Iran to study, it came as a bit of a shock,” Leila Austin, executive director of the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, told Foreign Policy.

After consultation with the State Department, the university announced this week that it has reversed its decision.

“This approach reflects the university’s longstanding commitment to wide access to educational opportunities,” Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement, said in a statement Wednesday, Feb. 18. “It is now clear, after further consultation and deliberation, that we can adopt a less restrictive policy.”

The State Department official told Foreign Policy that U.S. law does not prohibit large groups of Iranian students from studying STEM at U.S. universities. The official said “qualified Iranian nationals,” as determined by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, are allowed to study.

“Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” the official said.

Photo credit: Boston Globe

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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