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In post-nuclear-deal Iran, a modest academic opening to the US

Iran has given permission for five Americans to study in a Tehran University masters program – a 'breakthrough,' the department head says. Others are enrolling in Persian language classes. 

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    Traffic moves along a highway with Milad Tower and mountains in the background on a rare day with little pollution in Tehran, Iran, December 2013.
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Even as denunciations of the nuclear deal still echo in the US and Iran, the mid-July breakthrough already appears to have quietly enabled the first steps in academic diplomacy between the two countries.

This week, five American students began a two-year masters program in Iranian studies at Tehran University – where US citizens were denied visas for years – and three more Americans have enrolled in separate Persian language programs.

President Hassan Rouhani, who promised Iranian voters sanctions relief and for whom the nuclear deal was a central achievement, has often spoken of Iran’s need to engage with the West. Last week Mr. Rouhani said the deal marked not the “end of the road,” but the start of better ties “with different countries.”

But the anti-American rhetoric hasn’t changed at the very top. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned this month that the “enemy” effort to exert political and cultural influence “is a much larger danger” than security threats and that the “complete symbol” of that enemy was the United States.

Besides the American students, five British nationals and one Canadian were also accepted for the masters program at Tehran University.

“This really is a breakthrough,” says Mahdi Ahouie, head of the Department of Iranian Studies, which under the Faculty of World Studies runs the foreign student program.

“It seems to us this has changed, as part of Mr. Rouhani’s policy to open the country to academic exchange,” says Professor Ahouie. “We don’t know if it is because of the nuclear deal, but something has happened.”

The presence of Westerners and especially Americans in Iran has been sensitive since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which ousted the despised pro-West Shah – one of Washington’s closest Middle East allies at the time.

Academic and other exchanges revived during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, which began in 1997. But they grew increasingly difficult during the eight-year rule of arch-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which ended in 2013.

For years there has been an imbalance. Iranian education officials stated last week that 8,800 Iranians were studying in the US, with 6,000 in Germany and 4,000 in the UK.

Largely pro-American population

By contrast, Iran may only issue an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 visas for Americans each year. No official figures are published.

The American and other Western students today will find a largely young, pro-American population that often bristles at many of Iran’s stricter social rules. And despite the perpetual anti-US rhetoric from some quarters, the Islamic Republic today is a very different place from the one that in 1979 seized the US Embassy and sparked the hostage crisis.

Still, several dual US-Iranian citizens are held here, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who as of today has been imprisoned for 14 months – the longest by far of any Western reporter held in Iran – on security charges his family says are false.

Individual Iranians often go out of their way to welcome an American, or stare as if at a unicorn. The surprise cuts both ways, for Americans new to the bustling chaos of Tehran.

“You quickly realize that you're serving as an unofficial representative of the American people here, because other than Iranian-Americans, the vast majority haven't seen or met Americans in person before,” says an American student in the 10-week language program, who requested anonymity because he had just arrived.

Flexibility with longer visa

“Most conversations include questions about what Americans think about Iranians, and you can see they are genuinely curious about their image in the US,” says the student, who sought admission five years in a row. “You can’t help but be a bit more optimistic for the future.”

Statistics released by the language program, which lasts 10 weeks or longer, show that hundreds of Chinese students in recent years made up roughly half the total of all students combined. One American took a single course in 2014, along with several British students.

But the new influx of US and UK citizens for masters studies is a bigger surprise, since they require two-year resident visas that allow travel across the country.

“My hope is they will take the genuine picture of the country back with them,” says Ahouie. “What we suffer from in Iran – in US, Western and Arab relations – is they don’t have an accurate image, but just live with fantasies of Iranians as very scary people, living with a Middle Ages mentality.”

“The only way for us to normalize relations with the world is to let more foreigners in and see for themselves,” he says.

Faulty preconceptions

That is what the crop of foreign masters students who arrived a year ago say they hope to achieve. An eclectic bunch that includes women from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Australia, and a British man – the first accepted into the program – they say their preconceptions about Iran quickly melted away.

Sara from Saudi Arabia was in contact with Ahouie for a year, asking detailed questions before coming, since Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are engaged in a regional rivalry that includes proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.

At home in Saudi Arabia, there “isn’t one person who wasn’t really shocked” that she chose to study in Iran, she says.

“I wanted to learn more about the country … to go to the source on the ground, to see what people are like here,” says Sara, speaking with other students in a classroom in central Tehran.

“Maybe I didn’t know quite how welcoming they are, when you are actually in the country,” she says. “It’s more open than I thought it would be, like social relations between men and women. It’s less tight than I thought it would be.”

Seeing behind the curtain

Jack, who graduated from Exeter in the UK in 2014, says he was enthralled by Persian literature. His biggest surprise has been that the long saga of British-Iranian history – which includes disputes over Iran’s oil resources and political intervention – is “not used in a prejudicial way, but it’s used in an ironic, humorous way.”

“I wanted to see behind the curtain for myself about what the media says about Iran,” he says.

A record 27 students were approved this year for the masters program, twice as many as the year before.

“This is a complex society – like American society – so it needs more effort to know it and learn about it,” says Ahouie.

“Students are the decision-makers of the future,” he says. “If they have an accurate picture of Iran, that is the most important capital they can take with them, a thing that will benefit both sides.”

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