February 26, 2015

NIAC Follows Up to Ensure Sanctions Don’t Discriminate Against Iranian Students


Washington, DC – The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) applauded the University of Massachusetts’ reversal of policy to ban Iranian students but is conducting further outreach to ensure that the situation is adequately resolved and to interrogate further the reasons for the expulsion of one Iranian student, Zahra Khalkhali, from the school this past January. NIAC has also contacted Virginia Commonwealth University (“VCU”), which has its own policy that appears to ban Iranian students from certain programs, to help address policy concerns.

Recent news that the UMass Amherst ban was triggered by the expulsion and harrowing deportation of an Iranian student, Zahra Khalkhali, has shone a further spotlight on how sanctions on Iran may be undermining the ability of U.S. universities to enroll and work with Iranian students.

Khalkhali, a second-year doctoral student at UMass Amherst, was dropped by the school after returning home to Iran last month. According to an NBC News report, however, the State Department had reviewed her research plan and approved a student visa for Khalkhali. It was only after UMass Amherst notified the Department of Homeland Security that Khalkhali was no longer a student at the university that she was denied entry into the U.S. and was deported back to Iran. This spurred the UMass Amherst administration to adopt a policy banning Iranian students from certain fields of study.

Even with the quick decision by UMass Amherst to reverse its ban, a number of questions remain as to which sanctions prohibitions or other government policies actually led to the ban and whether the university’s solution – it has adopted a new policy in which it will work with Iranian students to develop individualized study plans – resolves all concerns.

In letters delivered to administrators at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Virginia Commonwealth University on February 24th, NIAC emphasized that university policies must be narrowly tailored to meet the demands of the law, while not over-complying in ways that risked discrimination against Iranian students. As NIAC wrote in a previous February 13th letter to UMass Amherst administrators, the school’s initial policy was “based on a flawed interpretation of U.S. law and [ran] counter to federal and state law protections against discrimination based on national origin.” In its February 24th letter, NIAC welcomed the university’s change in policy, while also seeking information and clarification as to UMass Amherst’s new policy. In particular, NIAC is interested to ensure that UMass Amherst does not misread the applicable law and place burdens on Iranian students, does not apply any special policy towards  Iranian-American students, and provides full information as to how the new policy will be effectuated. NIAC expressed its willingness to work with UMass Amherst to resolve these outstanding concerns to the satisfaction of all parties.

Similarly, on February 24th, NIAC wrote to administrators at Virginia Commonwealth University regarding VCU’s policy of barring Iranian graduate students from certain academic programs. The case of VCU was brought to NIAC’s attention in the wake of the controversy at UMass Amherst. In its letter to VCU administrators, NIAC called on the university to reverse a policy that is at once overbroad, unnecessary, and discriminatory towards its Iranian students. NIAC also expressed its eagerness to open a dialogue with VCU administrators and help broker a fair resolution to this issue.

Under current law  (31 C.F.R. § 560.505(a)), persons from Iran on a student visa are authorized “to carry out in the United States those activities for which such a visa has been granted by the U.S. State Department…” Provided that a student does not surpass the bounds of their visa authorization and the university is compliant with the limitations on the release of software and technology imposed by 31 C.F.R. § 560.505(d), there is no obligation on the part of U.S. academic institutions to bar Iranian students from certain fields.  

It is apparent, however, that the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act is causing serious confusion for U.S. schools on how and whether their compliance is required. Section 501 of the Act obligates the Secretary of State and Secretary of Homeland Security to deny visas to and exclude from the U.S. “any alien who is a citizen of Iran” that is determined “to enter the U.S. to participate in coursework…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. NIAC will continue to help U.S. universities determine where compliance is required, while also ensuring that schools do not discriminate against Iranian students in ways not required by U.S. law.

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