US-Iran thaw set to pave way for more academic links

The nuclear accord announced last Tuesday among Iran, the United States and five other countries faces political hurdles before becoming a done deal. But the possibility of a warmer relationship between America and Iran after more than 30 years of animosity will very likely benefit fledgling efforts to develop links in higher education.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Several factors fuel hopes for an academic détente between the United States and Iran. Before the Iranian revolution, in 1979, universities in the two countries had deep ties – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, had helped build one of Iran’s top research universities, and Iran was sending more students to America than any other country (more than 50,000 in 1979).

Many in Iran’s top leadership benefited from those closer ties with the West. Six members of the Iranian cabinet hold American PhDs, a higher percentage than among cabinet members of traditional US allies, like Germany and Japan. And Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, studied at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.

But like the nuclear agreement itself, any new joint research or student exchanges will have to navigate a variety of challenges. And in both countries many politicians remain suspicious of any cooperation, academic or otherwise.

If the relationship does improve, here are three ways American universities may benefit.

Joint research

Iranian higher education officials have indicated an interest in working with their American counterparts on water conservation, environmental management, food safety and several other areas.

Last month the country hosted a rare delegation from American universities, including Ball State University, the University of Southern California and Wayne State University, to discuss possible collaborations in science and other areas.

The trip, which was organised by the Institute of International Education, included meetings with representatives of the University of Tehran and 12 other Iranian universities and research institutes. No new deals were struck, but given the academic ties that existed before 1979, it may be more a matter of restarting old programmes rather than inventing new ones.

As Daniel Obst, deputy vice-president for international partnerships at the institute, suggests, the initial steps for American universities will be blowing the dust off decades-old agreements to see if they remain relevant.

Study abroad

The percentage of American students studying in Iran doubled from 2011-12 to 2012-13, the most recent year for which data are available. In actual terms, the increase was from one student to two.

Obviously, it’ll take some time before throngs of American students crowd Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. Concerns about safety, academic standards and travel logistics are among the hurdles to more robust study-abroad possibilities.

One problem does appear to have been resolved. The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a rule last year that allows American undergraduates and graduate students to take courses at Iranian universities.

The government now also permits individuals in Iran to participate in undergraduate-level online courses offered by American colleges. So perhaps the most promising plan for an imminent exchange of American and Iranian students is one that’s virtual.

Student recruitment

While Iran sends far fewer students to the United States than it did in the 1970s, the numbers have picked up recently, with more than 10,000 students from Iran studying in America in 2013-14.

But don’t necessarily expect a rush of Iranian students anytime soon. The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security closely scrutinise Iranians seeking visas to study in the United States, especially Iranians with an interest in scientific fields, like nuclear engineering.

The US government’s review of Iranian academic pursuits recently led one institution, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, to bar Iranian students from some graduate engineering programmes. UMass soon lifted the ban, which it said was meant to comply with US sanctions against Iran. But given the international attention the episode received, Iranian students may think twice before applying to a college here.

Ian Wilhelm edits coverage of international issues and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @ianwilhelm, or email him at Karin Fischer contributed to this article.