Among the beneficiaries of the interim nuclear agreement with Iran that went into effect this week are Iranian students abroad and the Western educational institutions that are already seeing rising interest from Iran.
A senior Barack Obama administration official on Monday told reporters “we’ve committed that up to $400 million of Iran’s own money can be directed through a financial channel that we will agree on to universities and colleges outside of Iran where Iranian students are currently studying.”
This decision to set up a clear path for tuition and associated payments will come as a huge relief to Iranians who have struggled to establish accounts in U.S. banks and to find a way to legally transfer funds from Iran. U.S. banking sanctions in effect for several years have forced Iranian students to use murky means such as hawalas to pay their educational bills, work illegally or accept charity from Iranian Americans.
According to U.S. officials, the Iranian government will be able to pay overseas educational expenses from hard currency accounts in banks in countries still legally importing Iranian oil such as Japan, South Korea, Turkey and India. Under the terms of the interim nuclear deal, Iran is to get $4.2 billion of the $100 billion in past oil revenues stuck in foreign banks. Iran’s first payment of $550 million is scheduled to arrive on Feb. 1, according to the State Department, and the rest will be paid out monthly through July assuming Iran continues to faithfully implement the nuclear accord. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced on Monday that Iran had fulfilled its initial commitments by stopping production of 20 percent enriched uranium, beginning to dilute its stockpile of this potential bomb fuel and providing increased access to IAEA inspectors.
While much attention has focused on technical matters – the number of centrifuges Iran can spin and how much enriched uranium it can keep – the mere fact of the interim agreement is a major milestone and potential tipping point in Iran’s fraught relations with the United States. Lessening tensions also sends a signal to young Iranians that they will be welcome in U.S. colleges and universities and promotes intercultural understanding crucial to easing the 35-year estrangement between the two countries.
Already, steps taken by the U.S. government in recent years have contributed to a steady increase in Iranian students in the U.S., from just under 7000 in 2012 to nearly 9000 last year.
The Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau of the State Department facilitated the rise by putting information about higher education in the U.S. on the Internet at the website of the “virtual” U.S. Embassy for Iran. Since May 2011, the U.S. has also offered two-year, multiple entry visas to Iranian students instead of three-month, single entry visas, making study abroad much more attractive and practical.
The benefits of educating foreigners in the United States are numerous and go far beyond just the individual students and universities involved. Such contacts are especially important in demystifying long-time adversaries and build relationships that can promote mutual interests well into the future.
It is worth noting that many of the members of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet have American degrees including Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who studied at San Francisco State and got his doctorate at the University of Denver. These officials understand U.S. politics and have a more realistic idea of what negotiations can achieve than the insular hardliners who worked for the previous Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and who failed to break the nuclear stalemate with the West.
All of this is not to say that the path ahead to a more comprehensive nuclear agreement envisioned in six months, let alone normalization of U.S.-Iran relations, will be smooth. U.S. nuclear experts expect extremely tough bargaining as Iran seeks to hold on to as much of its nuclear infrastructure as possible and the United States and its negotiating partners try to limit Iranian facilities.
Another senior Obama administration official, also briefing reporters Monday on condition of anonymity, said that talks on a comprehensive deal, due to begin in Geneva next month with consultations among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, would explore “whether there is some possible enrichment capability and stockpile that would be consistent with the assurances we need that Iran is not in a position to develop a nuclear weapon without the international community having a long lead time and notice in advance.” The official did not specify how long that lead time would have to be.
There are also questions about the duration of a comprehensive deal and how the intricate web of U.S., UN and other international sanctions imposed on Iran over the past few years can be unraveled.
For now, however, the thousands of Iranians studying in the United States and many more who may want to come here have a reason to be grateful to their government for making the initial concessions that have made this sanctions relief possible.