Global

Why the Travel Ban Probably Hits Iranian Professors and Students the Hardest

January 31, 2017

Carlos Barria, Reuters
American and Iranian flags on display during negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program in 2015. The two governments have long been at odds, but academic relations between the countries run deep, leaving Iranian students and scholars especially vulnerable to the Trump administration’s new restrictions on travel.
As reports of the impact of the Trump administration’s travel restrictions emerge, one population in higher education seems disproportionately affected: Iranian academics and students.

To some, that may come as a surprise. For almost four decades, Iran and the United States have had difficult, even hostile relations. But America has long been — and remains — a popular destination for Iranian students to study and for Iranian scholars to pursue their careers.

Here’s a snapshot of the higher-education ties between the nations, how the links developed, and what President Trump’s executive order, which temporarily limits entry for Iranians, among others, may mean for them.

Current Ties

Of the seven Muslim-majority countries that the Trump administration’s order targets — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — Iran by far sends the most students to American colleges. In 2015-16, more than 12,000 Iranians studied in the United States, with a majority of them — almost 78 percent — in graduate programs, according to the Institute of International Education. Iraq sent the next-largest cohort — 1,901.

America is "still the country of first choice" for most Iranian students, said Shaul Bakhash, an emeritus professor of Middle Eastern and Iranian history at George Mason University. "It’s striking that that popularity has continued through the Islamic Revolution, barriers to studying abroad, and the years of financial squeeze" due to international sanctions and economic problems in Iran.

Mr. Bakhash, who was born in Iran and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University, says America is a "strong magnet" because of the large Iranian-American community in California and other states and because of its universities’ global reputation in engineering and other scientific fields.

Indeed, more than half of the Iranian students in the United States are studying STEM subjects.

And their time in American higher education seems to leave them with positive feelings about the country. According to a 2014 survey of recent doctoral recipients from overseas by the National Science Foundation, Iranians more than any other nationality hoped to stay and work in the United States.

Historical Ties

The intellectual exchange between Iran and the United States goes back decades, said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian-studies program at Stanford University. "It’s been a long, productive process."

In the 1960s and ’70s, oil wealth led to a growing middle class in Iran. But with the country’s higher-education system unable to meet demand, families began sending their sons and daughters abroad. Fueled by that new international outlook and government scholarships, Iran in 1979 sent more students to American colleges than did any other country, some 50,000 students.

“Despite being bombarded by anti-American rhetoric for 35 years, they still feel positively toward the country.”
But that year was the peak of the student flow. With the Islamic Revolution roiling the country and diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iranian governments cut off by the hostage crisis, the number of Iranians studying in United States began to decline sharply. It started to rebound only in recent years.

For Iranian scholars, the revolution had something of an opposite effect, with the United States becoming a refuge of sorts for those who chafed under the rule of the ayatollahs and the Islamic government.

America has long been the "City Upon a Hill" for many Iranian scientists and intellectuals, said Mr. Milani, who left Iran in the 1980s after being barred from teaching and conducting research.

"Despite being bombarded by anti-American rhetoric for 35 years," he said of Iranians, "they still feel positively toward the country."

Future Ties

While President Trump has proposed that visitors from Iran be subject to "extreme vetting," Iranians already faced greater hurdles to obtaining a student visa than did most other international students. In part because of concerns about the possible military use of Iran’s nuclear-energy program, Iranian students at American colleges are barred from studying fields such as nuclear engineering and often do not receive a visa that allows them to make more than one entry into the United States.

Given the previous challenges — and the determination by Iranians to still study in the United States despite them — some observers remain optimistic that the Trump administration’s changes will only hamper, not hobble, the flow of students and intellectuals.

The order will have "tactical, short-term, tragic consequences," said Mr. Milani, but he trusts that the amity between the two peoples will win out in the end.

Ian Wilhelm edits coverage of international issues and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @ianwilhelm, or email him at ian.wilhelm@chronicle.com.