IRAN: Students caught up in 'sanctions' debacle

Iranian students hoping to sit English language examinations that open the doors to top US and British universities were caught in the crossfire of sanctions imposed by the US and the United Nations when exams were suspended for two weeks.

On 16 July the US-based Educational Testing Service (ETS) that administers exams such as the TOEFL (Test of English as a foreign language) said it was suspending registrations for the exam in Iran.

It said it could not process payments from Iran under newly imposed sanctions. "We had an arrangement with an international financial institution to process registration fees [for ETS exams] out of Iran and that was working pretty well. But then the bank said it was ending its involvement," ETS spokesman Tom Ewing told University World News.

TOEFL registrations were reinstated on 29 July after ETS turned to another unnamed international bank, but the repercussions have been felt since with activists using the incident to highlight that sanctions hurt ordinary Iranians despite assurances from the US administration that it would ensure they would not.

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) had taken up the cause saying it was concerned that broad new sanctions would "invariably punish innocent Iranians".

"It is welcome news that we have resolved this particular issue, but it is a real tragedy that the very first victims of the new sanctions were young Iranians who dream of studying in the US," said Jamal Abdi, NIAC Policy Director.

"Unfortunately, this episode is likely just the first sign of things to come. Sanctions designed to indiscriminately punish and isolate Iran are inevitably going to punish innocent Iranians who are the greatest allies of democracy and human rights in Iran.

"It is unclear what other institutions, activities and individuals will be unintentionally punished by the new sanctions measures," NIAC said.

However, Iranian students may have become unwitting victims of a spat that had little to do with sanctions.

A statement on the ETS website in mid-July pointed to the UN security council resolution "affecting banks and financial institutions that conduct business in Iran" as the reason for the TOEFL registration suspension.

However, Ewing revealed: "[The bank] did not say it was a result of US or UN sanctions, it was our assumption." He pointed to "lots of news coverage at the time of recently imposed sanctions" as the reason behind that assumption.

Although a number of organisations including NIAC had lobbied the US administration over the suspension of testing, Ewing said "this was not an administration issue, this is a banking issue".

Testing had continued throughout the two-week registration suspension. "Those who were scheduled to take the test went ahead and tested, so testing never stopped," Ewing said.

The testing service found another bank willing to process payments from Iran that had been vetted by the US Treasury Department. Ewing declined to identify either the former bank or the new one, saying only that both operate internationally.

However Ewing was unable to say why the substitute bank, which enabled ETS to reinstate testing, was able to provide services in Iran when the previous bank could not.

Iranian sources said the problems were unrelated to the new sanctions, which will not be fully in place till September and even then would not prohibit banks from processing student payments.

The UN imposed new sanctions on Iran in early June. The US and European Union imposed stricter sanctions in early July on banks seen as assisting Iranian efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, or supporting terrorist organisations.

"We had operated in Iran since 1964 without interruption and with the Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control approval," Ewing said, referring to the department responsible for enforcing US economic sanctions.

Iran is not the only country where ETS operates that is subject to US sanctions. ETS said it carries out tests in Libya and Gaza, though not in North Korea.