The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has decided to no longer admit Iranian nationals to graduate programs in key science-related fields, a move that has angered Iranian students and injected the university into the diplomatic whirl of how to interpret sanctions.
The university recently announced its policy and was swiftly criticized by Iranian students and an advocacy group representing Iranian Americans. The State Department, which oversees visa policies, says that U.S. sanctions against Iran shouldn’t be used to bar all Iranian students who want to study science and engineering.
The school finds itself dealing with visas, sanctions and educational policy as relations between the United States and Iran have entered another sensitive phase in negotiations over the status of Iran’s nuclear program.
The university policy is rooted in one provision in an expansive 2012 federal law that strengthened sanctions against Iran. The provision denied Iranian citizens education visas to study in the United States if they pursued specialties in in the energy or nuclear fields.
On Feb. 6, UMass Amherst said it would no longer accept Iranian nationals for admission to graduate programs in chemical, computer and mechanical engineering or the natural sciences to avoid any potential violation of U.S. sanctions.
Educators say that Amherst’s policy is very rare, followed by just a handful of schools. Virginia Commonwealth University and Rensselaer Polytechnic University in upstate New York have adopted similar policies.
Spokespersons for UCLA and the University of California systems said they do not have a policy of limiting such admissions.
“I think UMass Amherst and any other school that adopts a similar approach is taking an overly broad interpretation of the law,” said Erich Ferrari, a lawyer in the Washington-based firm of Ferrari Associates, which specializes in economic sanction law. Such schools are being cautious and “are getting slammed, perhaps unfairly.”
UMass officials clarified the school's policy after an Iranian who was doing graduate research was denied reentry to the United States in December as a result of sanctions and related regulations, Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement at UMass, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. He said the school didn’t want to risk violating the rules because there are significant civil and criminal penalties.
Part of the problem is that a student may be admitted by the school and receive a visa, but may later chose a research project that could be a problem, Malone said. After checking with its lawyers, the school decided to act even though banning students is at odds with the school’s values of openness.
The State Department is committed to facilitating legitimate travel of qualified applicants, said a department official, speaking anonymously.
“U.S. law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering,” the official said. “Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. We will reach out to UMass Amherst to discuss this specific decision, and are available to answer any questions from other academic institutions regarding implementation of the relevant laws.”
Malone says there are 60 to 70 Iranian students in graduate programs at the school, but "just a fraction" are in the sciences. The school receives about 300 applications from Iranian students each year and accepts 20 to 30, but few are in the science research areas that could have sanctions implications.
The new policy would have no effect on any current student, Malone said. Nor would it affect Iranian Americans, permanent residents or anyone with dual U.S.-Iran citizenship.
“The legal advice we got -- and we rely on that -- is that there is no violation of U.S. discrimination laws," Malone said, responding to one of the complaints made by Iranian students on campus.
“We clearly are very frustrated and a lot of people feel betrayed by the university,” said Shirin Hakim, former president of the undergraduate Persian Student Assn. at UMass Amherst and now a spokeswoman for the Iranian Graduate Students Assn. She said she graduated with a public health major last year.
“It’s really shocking and we find it odd since few universities in the United States have such a strict policy,” she said. “We were only able to find two other universities that have similar policies,” she said, adding that the group would meet with school officials in an effort to have the policy reversed.
“Though we are very disappointed with this policy, we are all still members of this community -- we are all UMass,” she said. “With this current policy in place, we no longer feel welcome as we did before on this campus.”
The National Iranian American Council, which describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian American community, also urged the school to reverse the policy, calling it a “harmful, discriminatory and unnecessary action.”
In a letter dated Feb. 13, the Council said the school’s policy was apparently based on “a flawed interpretation of U.S. law and may run counter to federal and state protections against discrimination based on national origin."
“We urge the university to revisit its decision and take necessary steps to ensure it is not disenfranchising Iranian and Iranian American students,” the group said.
Follow @latimesmuskal for national news.