Sanctions “with teeth” nearly stopped Iranians from studying in U.S.

When the U.S. and the UN passed new rounds of sanctions against Iran, I’m sure they didn’t intend to quash all contact between the two countries. But that’s the problem with sanctions like these — they often have unintended consequences and end up inflicting all kinds of collateral damage on people in target countries.

One such consequence appears to have been narrowly averted — for now. The New York Times reported late last week that the U.S.-based Educational Testing Service (ETS) is set to resume new registrations for its English-language tests in Iran. Those tests, a requirement for non-native English-speakers to study in the U.S., were suspended two weeks ago when the bank that was processing Iranian payments for the test backed out of its agreement for fear that it might be punished under the new sanctions.

Though ETS found a new bank willing to process payments,  it refused to name it for the Times — laying bare the climate of fear created by sanctions. Nonetheless, an (also unnamed) official from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control told the paper: “I think there’s actually a pretty good awareness of what our sanctions prohibit and require with respect to Iran.” If that was the case, why did the original bank drop their client? Why is the new bank unnamed?

Should the program have stayed suspended,  it would be a horror story for U.S.-Iran relations. Media commentators who visit Iran regularly note that the people there have tremendous admiration for the U.S. — many people love the culture, films, music, and other articles of interest that make their way onto the soil of the Islamic Republic.

Part of this exchange is because Iranian students come to the U.S. and study, learn about this country, and go back to their homelands and tell all their relatives and friends about it. To have that avenue closed would be a long-term blow to having a society of young Iranians who are not at all hostile to the U.S. These youth and students, after all, are a key constituency in Iran’s up-again-down-again-but-never-out Green opposition movement. Those students were organizing for the Moussavi campaign — which sparked the massive turnout and, therefore, election fraud to keep the regime in charge, and eventually became a cause célèbre among various supporters of escalation measures and engagement alike. Those were the green-wrapped kids who were about to be left in the dark by these U.S. sanctions — only to learn about America from what their government teaches them in school.

But, as I said, the crisis has been averted — for now, at least, until the new bank bails or sanctions prevent payments. One wonders how many programs or other situations like this have been or will be effected by fear of “crippling” sanctions or their promised robust enforcement.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.


One Comment

  1. Your paragraph four says it all. Iranians and Americans are natural friends and allies, even in spite of the unfortunate parts of the past. We should engage the current regime without preconditions. Engagement and not war is the key to regime change in Iran. Iran under any regime can be a strategic asset for the U.S. That we have come to the current situation is a comment upon the power of those who believe American and Israeli interests are coterminus. Yet nothing is further from the truth. Iran is our natural friend and ally; Israel is a liability for us — always has been, always will be.

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