Last week, the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) issued a policy banning Iranian nationals from attending some of its graduate programs in science and engineering. After receiving a week’s worth of public backlash and consulting with the State Department, the University decided to reverse its new policy.
In August 2012, Congress passed the “Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act.” One provision of the law reads, “The Secretary of State shall deny a visa to, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall exclude from the United States, any alien who is a citizen of Iran that the Secretary of State determines seeks to enter the United States to participate in coursework at an institution of higher education … 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.”
In essence the provision is a safeguard measure against Iranians who might use the knowledge they gain as students here in the United States toward assisting the Iranian government in its nuclear program.
It was solely on the basis of this provision that UMass issued its ban on Iranian nationals, finding it within its power to take on the role of John Kerry who, as Secretary of State, is the only person that this law grants the ability to determine the intentions of Iranians studying in the United States.
UMass misinterpreted the law and then took it into its own hands at a tremendous cost to its own credibility. In a statement, the University acknowledged that the ban “directly conflicts with our institutional values and principles.” Nonetheless, “as with any college or university, we have no choice but to institute policies and procedure to ensure that we are in full compliance with all applicable laws.”
In fact, UMass ensured the exact opposite. Despite Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement Michael Malone’s assurance that “there is no violation of U.S. discrimination laws,” the ban stood in direct violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits public universities from discriminating against individuals based on national origin.
Further, the idea that UMass had “no choice” in the matter is outrageous. “Iran Threat Reduction” was passed three years ago, and nothing has happened since except for continued stagnation of nuclear negotiation efforts between Iran and the United States. Further, the State Department has never encouraged universities to do anything along the lines of banning Iranian nationals from certain academic programs.
In fact, its view toward the whole incident is one of confusion. In an interview on Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki made clear to the public that “U.S. law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering.”
Malone’s response to the ban’s reversal is one of denial. Instead of giving a tail-between-legs apology on behalf of the University, Malone simply said, “This approach reflects the University’s longstanding commitment to wide access to educational opportunities,” which gives the chilling implication that UMass should actually be applauded for its reversal of the ban.
While the incident at UMass may have been resolved, it cannot be brushed off as isolated. In February 2014, the Bank of Hawaii froze Iranian nationals’ bank accounts, and in June 2012 an employee at an Apple store in Alpharetta refused to sell to an Iranian-American woman, a U.S. citizen, because he heard her speaking Farsi.
The egregious actions of UMass, the Bank of Hawaii and Apple are all grounded in the unfortunate reality that the United States and Iran are at war with each other.
In an effort to prevent the country from adopting a nuclear program, which has largely been interpreted as a direct threat to Israel’s existence, severe sanctions have been placed on Iran by both the United States and the United Nations. Among these include economic and trade sanctions, which the Bank of Hawaii and Apple referenced to justify their discriminatory policies, and scientific sanctions which provided the basis for UMass’ short-lived ban.
Hopefully, Psaki’s statement deters such bad policy making in the future, but so long as the United States continues to impose sanctions on Iran it is only a matter of time before another American company takes a stab at justifying the discrimination against Iranians on the grounds of war sanctions.
Assistant Editorials Editor Erik Alexander is a College junior from Alpharetta, Georgia.