U.S. Universities Training Iranian Scientists: What Could Go Wrong?

Once the university’s plans became public, a coalition of campus activists and supporters in Massachusetts mobilized to pressure the administration to reverse its proposed admissions policy affecting 23 Iranian nationals seeking to study nuclear engineering the following fall. Following a mass rally, building occupation, and stories in the press, the Iranians were admitted.

Forty years later, another coalition of Massachusetts campus activists and their supporters across the country mobilized a highly visible media blitz directed at reversing the university’s proposed policy pertaining to the admission of Iranian nationals.   This time, too, the controversy ended with the university opening its doors to the Iranian nationals.

But here’s the difference.

In April 1975, the aim of the protesters – whose leadership included veterans of the Vietnam war protests and the new left, anti-nuclear power activists, and opponents of U.S. foreign policy – was to force MIT to ban the Iranians as a way of keeping nuclear technology out of the hands of the Shah. As recounted in Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War, by Roham Alvandi, one of the protest leaders, graduate student Bonnie Burrati publicly admonished MIT against “doing a dictator’s dirty work,” warning that among the entering students were bound to be agents of the SAVAK – the Shah’s ruthless intelligence service — and suggesting that a nuclear Iran could pose a threat to Israel.

To these protestors, preventing the transfer of nuclear technology to a despot trumped the principle of academic freedom.

In February 2015, the purpose of the University of Massachusetts Amherst protests was just the opposite — to force the university to reverse its announced ban on Iranian engineering and science graduate applicants. Citing 2012 legislation that prohibits Iranian nationals from pursing course-work in nuclear power and energy at U.S. institutions of higher learning, the the U. Mass administration had decided it would be simpler to impose a blanket ban on all Iranian science and engineering admissions rather than having to police individual courses of study as a way of staying in compliance with the law.

Leading the charge against the ban were Iranian students already in the United States, Iranian American advocacy groups, traditional civil libertarians, and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment Sanctions) left. In a newfound opposition to collective punishment and academic litmus tests, anti-Israel blogger CUNY professor Corey Robin used the occasion to take a cheap shot at sanctions critics by conjecturing that any opposition to the boycott on the grounds of academic freedom is duplicitous and insincere.

For Professor Robin, upholding the principle of academic freedom in this instance trumps concerns over the potential transfer of weapons-related technology to a despotic regime with expansive nuclear power aspirations that’s also one of the four nations identified by the U.S. government as a state sponsor of international terror.

According to Middle East expert Steven Ditto, whose February 2014 research report Red Tape, Iron Nerve: The Iranian Quest for U.S. Education is the definitive study of the practical and policy issues pertaining to Iranian nationals pursuing higher education in the United States:

  • Over 8,000 Iranians (other sources claim as many as 10,000) a year are admitted for study in the U.S.
  • One third are women
  • 70% of enrolled males have not yet performed required military service in Iran, while 5% have served in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
  • 80% of successful applicants are admitted at the graduate level
  • Over 75% — the highest percentage of any other home country of foreign students studying in the U.S. – are enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines
  • 55% receive full tuition assistance through their host universities, 18% receive partial assistance, 27% are self-payers, and 3% are funded by the Iranian regime. More than 85% of Iranian STEM PhD candidates receive full funding through their host academic departments
  • 89% of Iranians awarded doctoral degrees from U.S. universities from 2005 to 2011 stated a preference to stay in the U.S. after the completion of their studies, the highest “stay rate” of visiting students from any country
  • Slightly more than ½ find employment and eventually remain in the U.S.

Ditto reports that Iranian applicants face significant material barriers to entry primarily due to the effects of sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime. The application process alone costs individuals an average of $3,000 – $5,000, more than ½ the annual income for an Iranian urban family. Males who have not completed mandatory military service or who are not subject to an exemption are required to post an additional “exit security” bond of as much as $12,000 (or title to their family’s home or car) to be reimbursed upon the student’s return home.

The absence of diplomatic relations with the U.S. means that visa interviews must be conducted at consulates in nations outside of Iran, which may require multiple posting of exit bonds as well as the hiring of intermediaries to handle appointments, travel arrangements for taking admissions examinations, and even documents delivery as a way of getting around banking, credit card, and other financial sanctions.

Once an application has been completed, visa clearance by the U.S. takes from 3-6 months, with additional levels of screening conducted for applicants who have served in the military.

Ditto’s research and analysis is surprisingly sympathetic to the plight of Iranian students, given that the sponsor and publisher of his paper, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, includes on its Board of Advisors the likes of Henry Kissinger, Joseph Lieberman, Robert MacFarlane, Martin Peretz, Richard Perle, and Condoleeza Rice.

According to Ditto, the government’s Iran policy is full of contradictions and has been “in shambles” for several years. It’s in America’s national interest, he asserts, to remove or significantly ease the credit and banking, travel, diplomatic, and consular obstacles to study in the United States.

When asked about the national security implications of such reforms, he replies, “For me the statistics bore out personal observation – Iranian students are on the whole hard working, knowledge-oriented, and broadly sympathetic towards America. There might be a few bad apples, but they are either rooted out and denied a visa beforehand, or constitute a very small part of the Iranian student population.”

So what are the potential risks and benefits to U.S. national interests and world peace of making it easier to admit Iranian nationals to U.S. universities to pursue studies in STEM-related fields?

Given the rigorous vetting for screening out potential security risks during the visa application process, and the explicit prohibitions under Section 501 of “Iran Threat and Syria Human Rights Act” of 2012 (which make it illegal for Iranian nationals to come to the U.S. to study in fields that could contribute to Iran’s nuclear program), it’s extremely unlikely that an Iranian national would be allowed anywhere near an advanced program in nuclear or petroleum engineering, or even mining, on any campus or research facility in America.

While it would not be surprising if a few spies or potential saboteurs tried to slip into the country under academic cover, that’s what the FBI and various domestic intelligence services are for. Presumably citizens from a nation on the state-sponsors-of-terror list are going to be subject to intensive and ongoing surveillance during their time in the U.S. If our intelligence services are doing their jobs, serious prohibited activities are unlikely to go undetected. Under these conditions, it’s doubtful that many secrets of significant value are going to be uncovered by would-be spies. And since espionage is a two-way street, increasing the number of carefully vetted Iranians admitted to study in the U.S. also increases the pool of potential recruits predisposed to cooperating with American intelligence services.

Aside from the intangible benefits of person-to-person diplomacy, cultural exchange and the strengthening of personal bonds between individual Iranians and Americans, another beneficial effect of relaxing admission policies is the potential infusion into our culture and economy of a cadre of highly educated, motivated, and energetic immigrants eager to build successful careers as academic and technological entrepreneurs and seek to realize their version of the American dream.

So roll out the carpet and let the regime’s loss be America’s gain.

Who knows — aside from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses, these Iranian students also might sign up for a section or two in a foundering American Studies department somewhere, or even choose to take a soft science elective with Professor Corey Robin just for the fun of it.


About the Author
Louis Nayman, a labor union organizer for more than 30 years, has conducted education and training programs for trade unionists in Poland, Russia, Romania, Palestine and Lebanon. His writing has appeared in Tablet Magazine and In These Times.
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