The Immigration Ban and Education

One need only look at the protests taking place across America over the weekend to realize that there is much to dislike about President Trump’s recent executive order on immigration. From the fact that zero nationals of the countries named in the order have been responsible for terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens, to the specific exclusion of Muslim majority countries where Donald Trump has significant business ties, to the blocking of Iraqi translators who risked their lives to work with U.S. government forces during military operations in Iraq, to the abhorrent blanket ban on refugee resettlement, the order is not only illogical and potentially illegal, it is immoral.

The public critique of this order has rightfully focused its collective anger on the issues above, but I would like to take a moment to discuss something a little less obvious, but still significant: education.

Student visa holders, unlike diplomats, were not exempt from the ban. The effects of this omission were immediate and far-reaching. Students from the affected countries who happened to be abroad at the time of signing now find themselves barred from returning to the U.S. to continue their studies. Similarly, students from these countries currently in the United States now feel stranded, unable to leave the United States — even to return home to visit family — lest they be denied entry upon their return. One student likened this to being in a “stateless condition.”

Iranian students, in particular, are the most affected nationality due to their population and dispersion in the American education system. There are thousands of Iranian students currently studying in the United States. According to the Institute for International Education 2016 report fact sheet on Iran, there were 12,269 Iranian students studying in the United States, making them the 11th leading place of origin for foreign students studying abroad, and ahead of countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. They are also the only country targeted by the immigration ban to appear in the top 25 places of origin for foreign students. Given the value Iranian society places on educational achievement — higher education participation in Iran is on par with those of Western countries — it is no surprise that the vast majority of Iranian students, 77.7%, study at the graduate level.

The costs of losing these students are immense. Economically, Iranian students contributed an estimated $386 million to the U.S. economy from 2015-16. Culturally, the price is much higher. Numerous studies have shown the benefits from study abroad experiences. These include increased cultural tolerance, more constructive involvement in international relations, and even better cognitive function. The longer one spends abroad, the more lasting these effects are. It would not be a stretch to assume, then, that the Iranian students who return home after several years of a masters or PhD program in the United States do so with an enhanced appreciation for American culture and values.

This appreciation even extends to the upper reaches of Iranian government. When Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran in 2013, he selected several ministers with degrees from American universities. Notably, his cabinet contained more U.S. PhDs than that of Barack Obama’s, including degree holders from UC Berkeley, MIT, and my beloved Louisiana State University, among others. Rouhani himself received his PhD from the Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. This represents a stark change from the early days of the Islamic Republic, when its rulers frequently warned against the potentially devastating effects of “Westoxification” in Iranian society and government.


There is also a cost to future generations. If the ban extends into perpetuity, Iranians who wish to study abroad in the United States will find their dreams dashed. Those currently studying here will have to consider transferring lest, as previously mentioned, they concede to forgo any trips abroad during the duration of their studies. As Iranian society withdraws from the United States, they will lose important primary knowledge of American culture and customs, and thus will be less capable of countering the anti-American sentiment pressed by hardline political factions at home. This loss will be particularly hard felt given the absence of any formal diplomatic ties between the two nations.

The targeting of Iran will also add to the sense of unjust victimization and collective punishment Iranians feel they have suffered at the hands of the United States throughout their recent history. In addition to the orchestration of the 1953 coup d’etat that ousted prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, Iranians bitterly recall the United States’ support for Iraqi forces during the Iran-Iraq War (visually immortalized in the famous handshake between Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein), the downing of an Iranian airliner by a U.S. naval ship in 1988, and the numerous hardships caused by harsh economic sanctions against their country.

It remains to be seen what the ultimate duration, effects, and potential fallout from this order will be, but as of now one thing is clear: with a stroke of his pen, Donald Trump has severed the longest, most fruitful, and, indeed, only remaining line of communication between Iran and the United States.

The Inauguration in Iran

Iranian reaction to Donald Trump’s inauguration was a bit muted this weekend thanks in part to the continuing coverage of the Plasco building collapse in central Tehran. The building, home to several hundred garment and fabric merchants, collapsed following a fire that began on Thursday morning. The exact number of casualties is still unknown, but several dozen people, including 20-30 firefighters, are feared dead.

Newspapers on Sunday carried some reactions to Trump’s inauguration, many of them focusing on the global protests held the day after he was sworn in to office. The conservative papers, in particular, seemed to pick up on the protest theme. JavanJamhouri Eslami, and Jam e Jam all ran front page items on global opposition to the new president. The hardline Kayhan went a step further, framing the protests as a collection of lawless rioters causing “unrest” and “chaos” across the United States.

As for official reaction, there hasn’t been much of note. Ever since the election, Iranian officials have been content to repeat their position that the United States is not capable of unilaterally scuttling the nuclear deal, nor is Iran willing to engage in any renegotiation of its terms. Vague threats against Iran have been met with equally vague responses. Ali Akbar Salehi, director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, typified this approach in an interview on Sunday, saying that Iran is “prepared” to “act appropriately”if Trump follows through on his campaign pledge to “tear up” the nuclear deal. For what it’s worth, he also mentioned that he viewed the absence of any explicit mention of Iran in Trump’s inaugural address as a “positive.”

The most amusing news item from the inauguration weekend ran on Jam e Jam‘s website, where they posted a video from the multi-denominational pre-inauguration church service with the headline, “Quran Reading in the Presence of Donald Trump!”

Billboard Diplomacy in Iran

A new billboard just went up in ValiAsr Square in Tehran, and it’s pretty aggressive. The billboard celebrates the one-year anniversary of the detention of American sailors off the coast of Iran with a dramatic depiction of that event. In it, several American sailors are shown on their knees with hands placed submissively on their heads. The American flag hangs limply toward the side of the frame, while the Iranian flag billows triumphantly from a high-speed boat in the distance. The image is accompanied by a caption in Persian which bluntly says, “Superior power.”

This new billboard arrives at an interesting moment. Domestically, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future path of Iranian politics following the death of moderate champion Hashemi Rafsanjani a few days ago. Abroad, tensions with the United States continue to rise following disputes about the terms of the nuclear deal. Iranians are understandably concerned that the incoming Trump administration will take a harder line on Iran than its predecessor did. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to read too deeply into the posting of this billboard beyond the normal, everyday workings of Iranian politics.

After all, anti-American propaganda in Iran is nothing new. There are a couple of well-known examples that show up frequently accompanying media reports about Iran, including what I like to call the “Skull of Liberty” painted on a wall outside the former American embassy in Tehran, now an IRGC base, as well as the “Bombs, Skulls, and Stripes” (they have a real thing for skulls) mural painted on the side of a large building. The latter is a popular spot for journalists shooting standup reports looking to inject a bit of drama into their coverage. They are aided in this effort by the text plastered on top of the flag, conveniently written in English, which reads, “DOWN WITH THE U.S.A” in large, TV-legible font. The Persian writing below even tosses in the more traditional Revolutionary slogan, “Death to America,” for good measure.

The ValiAsr Square billboard, in particular, is a popular location for political messaging. This is due at least in part to its status as one of Tehran’s busiest intersections. In 2015, the same space depicted a parody of the famous image of American soldiers planting the flag at Iwo Jima, only this time on top of a pile of dead bodies symbolizing the victims of American militarism across the world. But negative advertising isn’t guaranteed here. When I passed through the square last year during a trip to Iran, I was greeted with a giant drawing of a bunch of smiling Iranians taking a selfie.

The prevalence of these images in media about Iran gives the impression that the country is awash in anti-American propaganda billboards, although that isn’t really the case. Those that do exist get extensive coverage in foreign press, especially when a new one goes up, but the overall volume is quite low. I didn’t encounter a single one during my travels outside of Tehran, nor did I see much anti-American amateur graffiti painted on the walls. I realize that this falls under the less robust category of anecdotal evidence, but I’m not aware of any extensive cataloguing of public displays of Iranian anti-American propaganda (please write me if you know of any).

The most frequent political billboards actually reference a different conflict. The Iran-Iraq War began following a surprise invasion in 1980 by Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein shortly after the founding of the Islamic Republic. It lasted for eight years and cost approximately one million Iranian lives. Posters throughout the country feature the faces of martyrs from this conflict. These displays are near ubiquitous in some cities and serve as a constant reminder of the bloody toll the nation paid to ensure its survival from foreign aggression.

Occasionally, billboards in Iran have been used as a tool for cultural initiatives. In mid-2015 the Tehran municipality replaced billboards across the city with works by famous artists such as Picasso and Matisse as part of an effort to encourage Iranians to visit museums. A year later, billboards throughout Tehran promoted the 29th Tehran International Book Fair, one of the largest such events in the Middle East.

Mostly, though, it should come as no surprise that billboards in Iran serve the same prosaic purpose they do everywhere else in the world: advertising consumer goods and services to the masses. As the saying goes, it’s money — not anti-Americanism — that makes the world go ’round.

Rafsanjani’s Rashomon

I was planning on doing a post on a different subject this evening, but given the momentous news out of Iran just a short while ago, I had to change my plans.

Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is dead. There is almost no way to understate the importance of Rafsanjani in Iranian politics. He was one of the key figures in the founding of the Islamic Republic, a former two-term president, former chairman of the Assembly of Experts, and chairman of the Expediency Council, among a host of other prominent political positions. He was frequently referred to as a “kingmaker” in Iranian politics and was credited with engineering the election of the current president, Hassan Rouhani, in 2013. In his later years, he was associated frequently with the moderate and reformist factions in Iran, acting as a powerful counterweight to the more conservative and hardline factions in the powerful judiciary, as well as the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

His death will no doubt trigger a wave of literature in the coming days and weeks predicting what his passing means for the future of Iran, both politically and beyond, but I want to refrain from that at the moment. Instead, I want to highlight something I’ve noticed in coverage of Rafsanjani over the years. One which, I think, acts as a metaphor for the broader debate over the Islamic Republic that has been taking place since its founding nearly four decades ago.

One curiosity of Rafsanjani’s lengthy career was the way in which he seemed to be everything to everyone. Depending on whom you asked, he symbolized either the worst or the best elements of Iranian politics. In this way, Rafsanjani’s career embodied the “Rashomon effect.” The term refers to the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film, Roshomon, in which different individuals describe the same events in different ways. The interpretations of Rafsanjani — as a politician, cleric, and man — are similarly multifaceted and contradictory.

Even now, as the Twitter analysis rolls in, one can see the vast differences of opinion Rafsanjani and the role he played in Iranian politics. On one side, you have those who believed Rafsanjani was an evil force, lurking in the background and using his immense power to surreptitiously and malevolently craft the most beneficial outcomes for himself or his country. Ironically, hardline factions in Iran and the West shared this decidedly negative view of the man. Israelis, too, largely agreed with this assessment thanks to a passage in a 2001 speech about the feasibility of a nuclear attack against Israel. Israeli leaders of all political stripes have frequently deployed this soundbite as incontrovertible proof of the Islamic Republic’s ultimate ambitions to annihilate the Jewish State.

On the other side, there are those who saw Rafsanjani primarily as a statesman and moderating force in post-Revolutionary Iran. He played a key role in convincing the first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to accept the terms of the UN ceasefire that finally ended the bloody Iran-Iraq War after eight long years. Later, while serving as the Iranian president, he made cautious overtures to the United States to reestablish ties after years of sanctions. He was considered a “moderate” in the complex web of Iranian politics, but was sympathetic to reformists and expressed support for the Green Movement during the protests that followed the controversial 2009 presidential election. He paid a high personal price for this stance, suffering the arrest and imprisonment of his children.

In his final years, he was a prominent ally of current president Hassan Rouhani and supported the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 (permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) that traded aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Above all, his proponents saw him as a pragmatic and stabilizing force in the frequently tumultuous seas of Iranian and Middle Eastern politics.

In many ways, the contrasting views of Rafsanjani echo the broader narrative competition on Iran and its intentions as an international and regional power. What his passing means will only become clear over time, but the stakes, especially with a presidential election scheduled for May of this year, could not be higher.

For now, however, all that is certain is that suddenly there is a void where there was once power.

The Black Gold Rush

Iran’s oil ministry released a report earlier this week listing 29 foreign companies that they will allow to bid on Iranian oil and gas projects under the Iran Petroleum Contract model. The list includes Shell (Netherlands), Total (France), Gazprom (Russia), Eni (Italy), and Petronas (Malaysia), along with companies from China, Austria, and Japan, among others. Not surprisingly, there were no American companies listed.

Among the notable absentees was British firm BP, which earlier this week announced that it would opt out of applying for any of the new contracts in Iran. Officially, BP representatives claimed their reasons for staying out of Iran were purely commercial, but unofficially there is intense speculation that the decision has more to do with the uncertainty surrounding the incoming Trump administration’s intentions for Iran.

BP is a British-based firm, but it has extensive roots in the United States and is currently headed by an American, Bob Dudley. Independent U.S. sanctions against Iran (i.e. sanctions that remain in place even after the implementation of the nuclear accord) bar American citizens from doing business in Iran.

There is an enormous amount of money at stake here. Iran is hoping to attract $200 billion of new investment in the oil and gas sector over the next five years, according to its latest development plan. The election of Donald Trump and the subsequent intensification of American hostility toward the Islamic Republic all but guarantee that the United States will not see any of the benefits of this process. Additionally, the entrance of these international firms into major development projects in Iran means that any attempts to reinstitute economic sanctions will face fierce resistance from the countries which stand to reap the financial rewards from these contracts. It’s worth noting, as well, that there are companies on this list from three of the five countries who hold permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council: France, Russia, and China.

Once the gold rush starts, it will be incredibly difficult to stop.