US issues fewer student visas to Iranians despite exemption

LONDON/WASHINGTON: With offers from four American universities, Mani Rezaei Rad gave up his well-paid job with a Siemens affiliate company in Tehran last year and proposed to his girlfriend so they could be together while he studied in the United States.
Getting a US student visa normally takes a few months, but 16 months later, he was still waiting. The uncertainty and lack of work took its toll on the relationship and the couple split.
“I was sliding into depression. I felt hollow and useless,” said Rezaei Rad, who had won places to study for a post-graduate degree in electrical engineering. Eventually he gave up his American dream and got a place at a European university instead.
Thousands of Iranians study in the United States each year, one of the few gates that has been kept open since the two countries cut diplomatic ties in 1980 after Iran’s Revolution the year before.
Iranian students are exempt from a travel ban initially introduced by President Donald Trump in 2017, which largely bars citizens of Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, as well as a small number of Venezuelans.
Data from the Institute of International Education (IIE), which tracks foreign students in the United States, shows that the number of Iranians studying in the country is the highest in decades, at 12,800. But there are signs it is on the wane.
State Department data showed that 355 fewer F1 student visas were granted to Iranians from March-October than the same period last year, a 23-per cent drop; it compares with a five-per cent drop for foreign students overall, a more normal fluctuation.
A wider total incorporating visas for Iranian students and their dependents has fallen for the past three school years. Meanwhile, several European universities said the number of Iranians studying there had gone up.
Reuters has found more than two dozen cases where Iranian US student visa applications were subject to delays. Asked about such delays, a State Department official said security was paramount.
Trump withdrew this year from an international deal to curb Iran’s nuclear programme and re-imposed sanctions, signalling the end of a wary detente between Washington and Tehran and a new phase of confrontation.
Visa ban exemptions, such as the one covering Iranian students, were cited by the Trump administration in the Supreme Court this year in countering allegations the policy constituted a “ban” akin to what Trump had called for during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Lawyers for the government argued in one brief to the Supreme Court that Trump’s policy “does not impose blanket bans but allows entry of some classes of nationals from the covered countries.” The Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 split, allowed the ban to go forward in June.
The State Department does not publish visa application numbers, making it hard to assess how much of the drop in the number of study visas granted to Iranians is due to rejections or delays and how much is because fewer of them are applying.
American universities enjoy an elite reputation in Iran and welcome its students, many of whom take courses in engineering and go on to fill skills shortages in the US and elsewhere.
Back in Iran, they counterbalance powerful conservative religious forces and provide a bridge to the West for future rapprochement. In the lead-up to the 2015 international nuclear deal, six out of 25 members of President Hassan Rouhani’s 2014 cabinet held US degrees.
Twelve Iranians with places at US universities said their visa applications were “under administrative processing” for extended periods, a term that generally refers to extensive background checks.
Separately, around 15 Iranians hoping to study at Oklahoma State University this fall had visa delays, a university official said.
Regina Henry, the immigration coordinator at OSU’s international students office, said she wrote letters giving them permission to arrive two weeks late. But that window was not enough for any of the 15. Typically, Henry has to write a maximum of five such letters each semester.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had to write so many and they were all Iranians, every one of them,” she said.
Some department heads at the university were becoming more hesitant to grant coveted graduate assistant positions to Iranian applicants, she said, even if they were their first choice, given the visa trouble they face.
A State Department official at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, when asked about the delays, said on condition of anonymity that national security was the top priority when adjudicating visa applications.
“We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes and to support legitimate travel and immigration to the United States while protecting US citizens,” the official said. — Reuters