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29 July 2015

The Iran deal: Re-opening the doors to Iranian students

Within the voluminous annexes of the JCPOA there exists a short but important provision that promises to reverse a trend of exclusion from the international community, and reinstate an important source of cooperation. The provision in question concerns the removal of restrictions on Iranian nationals’ access to US higher education programmes that would prepare them to enter a career in Iran’s nuclear or energy sector.

Iran flag

Since the passing of the Iran Threat Reduction Act in 2012, Iranian citizens have been prohibited from obtaining visas to study nuclear or energy related programmes at US universities. The implementation of the JCPOA will not only remove the blanket ban on Iranian access to US higher education in science and engineering, but also has the potential to influence policies relating to international student admissions in a number of other states.

Intangible knowledge transfer

Universities operate in an increasingly international arena, both in their research and their teaching collaborations. While this is generally understood to be a positive trend, it is important to remember that some knowledge has the potential to be misused.  It has been understood for some time that just as certain materials and technologies have the potential to aid the proliferation of WMD, so too does relevant scientific knowledge and experience.  Any indigenous nuclear weapons program relies heavily on personnel that have received post-graduate education in relevant science and engineering fields, of the type that is available at an internationally recognised standard in many countries, particularly those that already have a grasp of the fuel cycle, such as the USA, UK, and others.  Historical precedent for this concern exists, as the strategy of using students to gain WMD relevant training and information was employed by Iraq to aid its secret nuclear weapons program before the 1991 Gulf War. Past reports written by the UN Panel of Experts on Iran have repeatedly stressed the need for steps to curb the spread of intangible technology to Iran through foreign higher education institutions. It is with this risk in mind that several states have taken steps to try to control the spread of sensitive knowledge that could be applied to proliferation related activates.

What has been done?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most stringent controls on access to higher education in nuclear related fields have been put in place by the United States.  While visas can be denied to any international students hoping to study in the US for reasons of national security, the US Iran Threat Reduction Act (2012) entrenches an explicit and blanket exclusion on Iranian citizens seeking education relating to the nuclear and energy sectors. It involves;

Exclusion of citizens of Iran seeking education relating to the nuclear and energy sectors of Iran…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 other countries, the UK being a good example, there are in place visa vetting systems. Vetting allows governments to make sure that a prospective student is not connected with WMD related activities whilst avoiding an outright ban on students from certain countries or areas.  In the UK the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS), introduced in 2007, is designed to; “stop the spread of knowledge and skills that could be of use in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery [and] to ensure that people who are applying to study sensitive subjects in the UK do not have links to WMD programmes.” In practical terms this means that the UK Border Agency will not issue a visa to students from outside the European Economic Area and Switzerland, looking to study eligible courses until an ATAS certificate has been issued. Students must therefore apply for ATAS certification after receiving their offer of study but before making travel arrangements to the UK. Detailed guidance for higher education on the UK’s ATAS system has been drawn up by Project Alpha of King’s College London and the Association of University Legal Practitioners and is available free here.

Two relatively recent and high profile examples of the targeted exclusion of Iranian citizens from higher education have taken place in Australia and Norway. Ten Iranian post-graduate students studying in Norway had their residence permits revoked last year. Their studies were judged by Norway’s Police and Security Serviceto present the risk of the “transfer of sensitive technology which could help Iran develop its nuclear industry.” In Australia, similar concerns resulted in the visa of a PhD student being blocked by the Australian Government.

In both of these cases, the subjects being studied were not immediately related to nuclear energy, however, compliance with WMD related sanctions was cited as a primary factor in the decision.

What will the JCPOA change?

Importantly, the JCPOA only appears hold the USA to any change in policy. The text of both the agreement and UNSCR 2231 reading;

The United states commits to cease…exclusion of Iranian citizens from higher education coursework related to careers in nuclear science, nuclear engineering or the energy sector (TRA Section 501).

This is unsurprising considering that they are the only state to place an explicit ban on Iranian access to certain higher education courses.  The other major stakeholder in the deal, the EU, having in place no such explicit measure.

In practical terms, this provision will likely have a couple of outcomes.  The first being that restrictions on Iranian access to US higher education will be relaxed.  That is not to say that they will be removed altogether.  It is important to remember that the removal TRA measures the underlying visa process will remain unchanged. Foreign nationals, including Iranians, deemed to pose a security risk (WMD proliferation being such a risk) will still face restrictions.

The easing of unilateral US restrictions in this area is likely to have effects beyond the US border.  Student vetting systems like the UK’s ATAS system will almost certainly stay in place, and the denial or removal of students that state security services have good reason to believe are in some way connected with WMD proliferation will also continue.  However, the removal of the red flag that is currently raised simply by virtue of a person’s Iranian nationality may disappear.  Similarly, the motivations for denials that may be overly cautious simply because a country does not want to get caught out, may also be removed.


The JCPOA promises to remove what could be seen as a particularly draconian US policy.  While the ban on Iranian access to certain scientific and engineering instruction may not go unqualified, Iranian nationals can look forward to increased access to US higher education instruction in a variety of disciplines. What’s more, other states, with the US’s relaxing of its own policies and decreasing pressure from sanctions, other national governments may ease their own restrictions. The motivations behind decisions that may appear overly cautious, such as the removal of students studying disciplines that are in adjacent fields, as occurred in Norway, will also be largely removed. With the implementation of the JCPOA, the playing field should become more level across the board from Iranian students looking to study internationally.

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