The independent, non-profit Institute of International Education (IIE) has announced that it sent a "historic" delegation of university representatives to meet with Iranian counterparts in the Islamic Republic last week. Its press release described its goals:
"Educational diplomacy is at the forefront of opening up dialogue between two countries, often before full diplomatic relations have been restored," said [IIE President and CEO] Dr. [Allan E.] Goodman. "This was the case with China and Vietnam, and IIE has been leading these efforts in recent years, first with Myanmar and Cuba and now with Iran." The new IIE Iran Higher Education Initiative will take a multi-pronged approach aimed at expanding educational cooperation with Iran. In addition to last week's delegation, the initiative will include a series of activities over the course of the next year, including bi-national conference calls, a white paper on opportunities for developing university partnerships and understanding the regulations that control the establishment of these relationships, workshops for university administrators, and activities aimed at increasing exchanges of students and faculty members. The goal is to share resources and knowledge that will bring higher education institutions in the U.S. and Iran closer together, ultimately to enrich the academic experiences of students, faculty, staff, and administrators from both countries.
Like many academics basking in what they believe to be new geopolitical relevance, Goodman ignores history. Educational exchanges with Iran — including multi-university ones — are nothing new; I participated in two during the 1990s while I was studying Persian and conducting research for my Ph.D. in Iranian history. Many Iranian students study in American universities; in the 1990s, I studied with them. Multiple controversies over visa status and availability for Iranian students could not have occurred if exchanges did not happen. Indeed, educational exchanges have long been staples of people-to-people efforts. George W. Bush-era Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, for example, actively sought to bring more Iranians into the country for study. "We've all seen the huge, long-term impact of having someone study in our country and get to know the American people and what that means in 30, 40 years," he explained.
What Goodman and the IIE ignore, however, as they kowtow to the Islamic Republic in order to keep access is educational discrimination. The Islamic Republic of Iran severely restrains if not forbids Iranian Baha'is to pursue higher education in Iranian universities (or to qualify for state scholarships to pursue education abroad, such as they may be). Likewise, Iranian Jewish students in Iran complained to me about severe discrimination in Iranian universities to the point where they were unsafe living in Iranian student dormitories. Missing from the IIE press release is any conception that such discrimination occurs, or that the IIE and the universities participating in this delegation—Ball State University, Pitzer College, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, the University of Southern California (USC), and Wayne State University—will make free access regardless of religion to be a defining principle of any exchange. Ideological fealty cannot be allowed to trump academic qualification for Iranians seeking university admission and scholarships in the United States. Unless the Iranian government allows Americans to administer exams for admission and scholarships, only the regime's most trusted supporters will benefit.
The IIE ignores how the Iranian government has tried to hijack past academic exchanges. In 2000, during the height of the Dialogue of Civilizations, the United States granted Iranian passport holders approximately 22,000 visas; the Iranians reciprocated by granting U.S. passport holders less than 1,000. The discrepancy has only grown with time. Those who criticize Iranian policy receive no visa, while those who wish to ensure access parrot the Iranian line. According to the Iranian news website Asr-i Iran, George Washington University Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr went so far as to encourage Tehran to use its leverage to purge Iranian studies of Jews and Bahai's.
So what should the IIE do? They are absolutely correct that academic exchanges and cooperation can be valuable. But, to benefit all, they must be based on reciprocity. Iranian students, for example, should not receive multiple entry visas to the United States unless American students receive the same status of visas to Iran. Likewise, there cannot be a discrepancy in visa numbers as during the much heralded but ultimately substance-less "Dialogue of Civilizations." There should be no more opportunities for Iranian students visiting the United States than for American students visiting Iran.
University administrators of both nationalities should also sign statements ensuring that there will be no discrimination toward any student based on his religion, sexual preference, or any other factor. Iran hangs gays for the crime of being homosexual. How will the IIE mitigate the threat to American students who might happen to be gay? Likewise, what fate will await an Iranian student who does not conform to the Islamic Republic's declared mores during his or her time in the United States?
There are very real reasons why U.S.-Iranian relations have been strained for 36 years. The reason for geopolitical tension is not simply because American officials from both parties haven't had the foresight to realize that dialogue can solve everything; rather, it is because until now they have not been willing to ignore Iranian behavior. If the IIE's desired exchange is really to achieve the goals it sets out, then it is imperative that it not ignore Iranian regime or university behavior either.