The Trump administration’s efforts to restrict student visas from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism might seem like common sense, but, like everything else in an election year, it has become fodder for the partisan meatgrinder. Late last month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement published a rule change to end indefinite visas for enrolled students originating in countries where visitors often violated the terms of their visas, or countries that are state sponsors of terrorism. None of this, of course, would end the issuance of visas; rather, certain students would have to re-apply after two or four years.
Joe Biden has generally opposed any new controls on foreign students. “Across the world, people come to this country with unrelenting optimism and determination toward the future. They study here, innovate here, they make America who we are. Donald Trump doesn’t get that — we need a president who does,” Biden tweeted on July 7, against the backdrop of Trump administration attempts to restrict visas for those attending schools offering virtual-only learning. Many universities and international students believe Biden would reverse or refuse to enact Trump’s clamp-down on student visas.
Enter the National Iranian American Council, the Islamic Republic’s de facto lobby in the United States. In an over-the-top statement issued in response to the proposed end to open-ended student visas without the need for renewal, Jamal Abdi, the group’s executive director, wrote, “Donald Trump’s white-nationalist administration is once again demonstrating its zealous hostility toward immigrant communities, including the Iranian-American community. Give this administration more time, and there will be zero visas issued to Iranians and other Muslim and African nations.”
Put aside the fact that the new rules would not affect the many Muslim and African nations whose citizens do not surpass a 10% violation rate of the terms of their visas (or the fact that the Islamic Republic could endeavor to cease sponsoring terrorism), and the number of visas Iran grants American passport holders are two orders of magnitude less than what the U.S. grants Iranians. Ignore, in addition, the fact that the amended rules allow reissuance of visas and so would not interrupt the education of most Iranian students in the U.S. or those hoping to study here.
Consider instead what Iran itself says. On Sept. 27, 2020, Javan, a website which hews close to the Iranian government, published an article lauding the close relationship between Iranian universities and the Islamic Republic’s defense industry. Mohammad Saeed Seif, director-general of the Industry Relations Office of the Deputy Minister of Research at the Ministry of Science, reported that in the last year, there were about 1,000 joint projects between the Iranian defense industry and its universities. These included such things as electronic warfare, radar development, unmanned aerial vehicles, and jamming technologies. Universities involved included Tehran University, the most prestigious university in Iran, as well as a number of science and technology websites.
That Iran’s defense industry plans to underwrite many university programs raises valid questions about both Iranians studying in Iran and those Iranian nationals studying in U.S. universities (outside of the humanities and some social sciences). For those studying inside Iran, the question becomes whether admission to certain universities considers the needs or input of Iran’s vast military and defense bureaucracy. After all, if there are 1,000 joint ventures between university departments and the military, for which the universities receive compensation, then it is logical to assume that the Iranian military hopes to shape their operations. Sharif University, for example, now actually offers courses in radar and electronic warfare. These likely would not be electives but rather reserved for those admitted for the expressed purpose of a career in Iran’s military or military industries.
If Iranian nationals from Iran apply to study at U.S. or European universities, the questions then become whether they plan to return to Iran, whether Iranian authorities are directing certain students to apply, whether such students can hope to find a job without comprising their independence from the Islamic Republic’s military complex, and if they work in any field which could complement the programs in Iran seeded by the Iranian military.
It is true that American universities can be a mechanism of soft-power, although it is equally apparent that those who attend them do not necessarily absorb liberal values: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif used his time in the U.S. to learn how to better communicate with Americans, but he has since dedicated his career to the defense of murder, genocide, and anti-Semitism. Likewise, the late Muslim Brotherhood theoretician Sayyid Qutb returned from Colorado and California and became an apologist for terror and for cleaning society of the sort of liberalism he witnessed in America.
Biden and running-mate Kamala Harris may be motivated by an honest belief that liberal policies will spread soft-power, but he and his team err by projecting the American concept of universities upon an Islamic Republic which has, for 40 years, waged a cultural revolution on campus, and they endanger security by mirror imaging rather than recognizing the reality of the Iranian defense complex’s assault on Iranian campuses. The National Iranian American Council, meanwhile, is dishonest by eliding the reality of the military-university complex in Iran and prioritizing Islamic Republic talking points over the needs of both Iranians and Americans.
Just as Trump is wrong to assume that a policy’s origin during the Obama administration to be reason enough for automatic reversal, so too should Biden and his top aides recognize that resistance to Trump should not mean becoming blind to the Iranian regime’s abuse of universities and education exchange. Alas, their knee-jerk rejection of Trump risks empowering those who would use the gains of America’s education to contribute to programs geared to maim and kill.