August 12, 2016

Cultural and academic exchanges needed to sustain improvement in relations

WASHINGTON — Before the breakdown of relations between the United States and Iran in 1979, the two countries and their peoples enjoyed more than a century of extensive diplomacy, where art, athletics, and academia were major areas of engagement and collaboration. After over three decades of estrangement, the nuclear deal should be a glimmer of hope that revitalizing those relations is once again possible.
As President Obama noted in his first Norooz message following the deal, “even as our two governments continue to have serious disagreements, the fact that we are now talking to each other on a regular basis, for the first time in decades, gives us an opportunity–a window–to resolve other issues. As we do, I firmly believe that we can continue to expand the connections between the American and Iranian people.” The 2016 Democratic platform even emphasizes, “Democrats recognize that the Iranian people seek a brighter future for their country and greater engagement with the international community. We will embrace opportunities for cultural, academic and other exchanges with the Iranian people.”
In the 1970s, Iranians made up the largest population of foreign students in the U.S. The remnants of this past, and a reformist shift in Iran, allowed for limited cultural and academic exchanges in the 1990s and 2000s. Under the Obama administration, Iranian student enrollment in the U.S. rose and a handful of sanctions exemptions were issued to facilitate certain exchanges between Americans and Iranians.
Today, Iranian students still comprise a large portion of America’s foreign student population. According to a 2012 survey by the National Science Foundation based in Arlington, Va., Iranians have the highest rate of international students intending to stay in the U.S. after receiving a Ph.D. after Chinese students. The former Electrical Engineering chair of Stanford University Bruce Wooley stated, “Without a doubt, the finest university in the world preparing undergraduate electrical engineers is Sharif University of Technology in Tehran.” These bright academics come to help advance their fields of study, mostly science, here in America, bringing with them a passion for their fields and strong academic backgrounds.
The window to begin seriously rebuilding ties between two dynamic societies must not be missed. Today, the Iranian people are still the most pro-American population in the Middle East, a region where U.S. allies have largely anti-American populations. People to people exchanges are “a low-cost, high-yield investment” that can bolster confidence and maintain goodwill between the U.S. and Iran, as Ramin Asgard and Barbara Slavin argued in a 2013 Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force report.
Specific ways to forge cultural ties and to promote engagement include creating a U.S.-Iran Cultural Exchanges Working Group to coordinate exchanges, creating a modified Fulbright program, and initiating joint research projects, as recommended in the Task Force report. Implementation of these programs is not politically impossible. During President George W. Bush’s second term, the State Department’s Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau (ECA) facilitated visits by Iranian national sports teams to the U.S. The exchanges went so far to bring the Iranian Olympic basketball team to train in the NBA summer league.
Reestablishing informal or formal American-Iranian exchanges are not a means to an end, but they provide opportunities to sow seeds of a promising future where Americans and Iranians value each other’s humanity. Expanding these points of interaction would establish a foundation to build upon and signal that the two countries do not have to be at odds forever.
There are, however, real questions about the obstacles that the opponents of warming relations between the U.S. and Iran will pose on such exchanges. Iranian hardliners have lashed out against almost all forms of U.S.-Iran exchange. In the U.S., many sanctions remain in place that still make exchanges legally complex and real questions exist as to whether the next U.S. President will be committed to continuing Obama’s trajectory and allowing for new openings with Iran and its people. Hillary Clinton’s State Department did work to lift sanctions on communications tools and to expand student visa opportunities for Iranian student. At the same time, she has been more hawkish than President Obama – especially on the issue of sanctions which will complicate any exchange efforts. Meanwhile, Donald Trump hasn’t commented on exchanges but his calls for banning Muslims would certainly have an extreme chilling effect on any such efforts.
While some elements of the Iran deal are permanent, others begin to expire within the decade. Meaning, transforming the relationship between Iran and the U.S. will be crucial in the long-term. If the Iran nuclear deal is the foundation for improving U.S.-Iran relations, cultural and academic exchanges are the bearing walls. Yet, this glimmer of hope for expanding relations between Americans and Iranians threatens to be extinguished if changemakers in either country are unable to seize the window afforded by the nuclear agreement.

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