Visa woes for Iranian nuclear energy students

The National Iranian American Council, or NIAC, has warned against a new United States bill that bans visas for Iranian students seeking education at American universities in fields relating to the nuclear and energy sectors.

The bill’s language has critics arguing that it is potentially a human rights issue, given the new restrictions on fields of study Iranian students are allowed to pursue in the US.

The NIAC warning was issued in response to a provision in the latest US sanctions bill against Iran, HR 1905: Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Human Rights Act of 2012, which was signed into law on 3 August.

As originally drafted, the provision in the bill applied to all engineering students. But the NIAC says it managed to have the engineering provision removed, and opposed the final bill.

A NIAC press release of 1 August states: "NIAC supports an effective approach to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, protect human rights in Iran, and support the democratic future that Iranians have aspired to for over a century. This bill is not that approach.”

Critics say the new restrictions run counter to the Barack Obama administration’s stated goal of reaching out to young Iranians. According to a story on Payvand Iran News, in May last year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed support for Iranian students, promising a less restrictive visa regime, with eligibility for multiple-entry visas.

But the new bill states that a US visa would be denied to “any alien who is a citizen of Iran” and who “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".

The language used in the bill has raised questions about exactly what fields would constitute a potentially problematic career path and how the US government will assess Iranian student visa-seekers’ future career paths.

The NIAC has called for the US State Department to issue clarifying guidelines for Iranian students in this regard.

And in a letter to Secretary Clinton the NIAC, according to the Payvand Iran Newsstory, urged “renewed efforts to ensure Iranian students and visa-seekers are not punished in the standoff between the US and Iran”.

In response to sanctions by the US and other Western countries such as The Netherlands, the Iranian government is attempting to dissuade students from studying in Western institutions. It is offering scholarships and incentives for students to study at Iranian universities in the field of nuclear science.

And according to a Rahpouyan News Agency story, which quotes statistics from Iranian Minister of Science, Research and Technology Kamran Daneshjou, around 1,300 of Iran’s most intellectually talented students have applied to switch their majors to the field of nuclear sciences following the assassinations of Iranian nuclear science professors last year.

Iranian Professor Muhammad Sahimi, a chemical engineer at the University of Southern California, told University World News that the latest US visa restrictions were “a totally wrong-headed policy” based on “phobia not rational thinking”.

He suggested: "When an Iranian student gets his-her education in a Western university, he-she can convey to the Iranian people that not everyone in the West is anti-Iran, anti-Islam and wants war with and-or sanctions against Iran.

“Cultural exchanges always reduce tensions between two nations.”