US pull-out of Iran deal will hit academic cooperation

United States President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of a landmark international nuclear accord with Iran and reimpose US sanctions on Iran will have a negative effect on the US-based Iranian academic diaspora and will hamper ongoing US-Iran higher education cooperation, experts have said.

The repudiation on 8 May of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, known by its acronym JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), announced by President Trump, will all but shut down academic exchanges between the two countries.

Many academic exchanges planned after the 2015 deal had already been halted when Trump took office in 2016.

Iran was among seven majority-Muslim countries whose citizens were barred from entering the US by executive order of the Trump administration from 27 January 2017. While some US-based academics and others legally contested the executive order, it has had a dampening effect on academic and student travel.

"Iran-US higher education cooperation and academic partnership agreements, already at a bare minimum, will now be downgraded even more to near zero due to intensified sanctions soon to be in place," Pirouz Azadi, a San Francisco-based Iranian-American professor, told University World News.

"This unilateral decision by Donald Trump will inextricably make the daily lives of Iranian students and scientists in the US more restricted and adversely impacted," he added. "They will no longer [be able to] travel to Iran, as hundreds of thousands have done in prior years. Even fewer students from Iran can secure visas to enter US-based universities."

"I do not see any future for US-Iran academic relations and exchanges," Muhammad Sahimi, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Southern California, told University World News. "Even the brightest Iranian students cannot get a visa to come to the US to go to graduate school, let alone close academic collaborations," the Iranian academic said.

According to, a higher education statistics portal, there were 12,643 Iranian students at US colleges and universities in 2016-17, more than half of them enrolled in engineering degrees.

Fear of hostile perceptions towards Iranians

Arguably, more damaging will be the period of uncertainty before new US sanctions against Iran are put in place and the impact on perceptions, with many Iranian academics and students fearing overt hostility and discrimination in the US.

The US pull-out “creates a degree of uncertainty with regard to academic cooperation as it raises questions about the viability of agreements, particularly in light of sanctions being placed on Iran, which of course will have both a direct impact and an impact on perceptions," said Simon Mabon, a lecturer in international relations and director of the Richardson Institute for Peace Studies at Lancaster University, United Kingdom.

He added that "there may be an impact upon the academic diaspora in the US, particularly with regard to xenophobia and perceptions, but it is worth stressing that within the [Iranian] diaspora there are incredibly vocal critics of the Iranian regime".

“Nothing is certain,” said William Rugh, a former US diplomat, now professor in the global studies and international relations programme at Northeastern University in the US. Trump’s announcement creates “so many uncertainties that we are today in uncharted territory", he said.

Rugh is a former president of AMIDEAST, a non-governmental organisation involved in educational and training projects throughout the Middle East.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, professor of global thought and comparative philosophies and chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, UK, told University World News that Iranian students and the academic community “have found ways to get around the discriminatory policies of successive US governments”, but Trump’s actions could nonetheless increasingly isolate the Iranian academic community in the US.

Iranian students' reaction

In Iran itself, students protested outside the US embassy in Teheran in the wake of Trump’s announcement, fearing the impact of renewed economic sanctions.

The students’ fears were justified because of the likely harm to academic possibilities, Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a researcher at Cairo's National Research Centre, Egypt, said.

He noted that with the reimposition of sanctions, limited access to international financial institutions will restrict the transfer of funds and payments for the acquisition of materials for research and could affect fees to academics for publications, as well as subscriptions to professional and academic bodies, registrations for conferences, as well as services and subscriptions to scientific journals and databases.

But a knock-on effect of new sanctions could be a redirection of academic cooperation from the US to other countries, particularly in Europe and parts of the Middle East, according to Adib-Moghaddam, who said he knew of several high-ranking professors “who are looking to get out of the US to Europe, the Persian Gulf or elsewhere".

While the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Israel in the Middle East region voiced their support for the US withdrawal, many leaders in the international community opposed it, including all other parties to the deal – France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China.