November 16, 2011

Substantial increase in Iranian students studying at US universities

A recent report released by the Institute of International Education shows a 19% increase in the amount of Iranians coming to the US to study.  With over 5,600 students in the US, Iran had the 22nd highest amount of international students in the U.S. during 2010/2011.
This welcome trend is likely connected to the Obama administration’s smart decision last May to begin issuing Multi-Entry Visas to Iranian students attending universities in the US.  Previously, Iranian students could only get Single-Entry Visas, which prevented them from returning home for the duration of their studies, regardless of whether there was a funeral or a wedding for a loved one.  As such, the policy change was undoubtedly welcome news for potential students in Iran.
But whatever the reason for this increase in Iranian students coming to the US for their studies, it could prove to be an intelligent and effective policy for the US.
The U.S.’s image among ordinary Iranians may have taken a hit with crippling sanctions and threats of military action.  Taking steps to ease burdens on Iranian youths, some of whom are prevented from attending college in Iran because of associations with the democracy movement, helps mitigate some of that damage.  As such, accepting more Iranian students is a tangible step that could prove to Iranians that our problem is not with them but with the behavior of their government.
As the Acting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran said at a Capitol Hill hearing yesterday, the U.S.’s interests are not served by keeping isolated the youth of Iran who “think very favorably of the United States.”  It is important to encourage rather than stifle the aspirations of Iranians who want to pursue opportunity through studying abroad in the U.S.
Moreover, establishing people to people connections helps humanize both sides, making it much harder for Iranian and U.S. politicians to escalate confrontation by portraying the other side with the false caricatures.
As sanctions seem unable to create the type of changes that the U.S. wants, and as military options are unrealistic and would prove to be a catastrophic, this increase in Iranian students may be the silver lining in an otherwise abysmal U.S. policy towards Iran.  By helping Iran’s youth receive a college education, we provide opportunities for a brighter future for not just ordinary Iranians, but also for ourselves.

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