Q&A with Vali Nasr on Obama Administration’s Decision to Change Visa Policy for Iranian Students

By PAAIA Staff

May 22, 2011, Washington, D.C. – Following an effort by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian American (PAAIA) and several of its Board members and Trustees who had direct access to influential members of Congress and the Administration, PAAIA was proud to see the fruits of its direct appeal complement community efforts and helped bring change to the visa policy announced by the Obama Administration on May 20th. We acknowledge and applaud contributions by other Iranian American organizations and point to what can be achieved with unity of purpose.  After the public announcement, PAAIA had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Vali Nasr who was at the U.S. Department of State until recently to discuss the Obama Administration’s decision to change the single-entry visa policy for Iranian students. Dr. Nasr was a Senior Advisor to the Administration on Afghanistan and Pakistan.  In that capacity, he was one of the highest ranking Iranian Americans serving in the U.S. government.

Under the old visa policy, Iranian students and individuals enrolled in academic or professional exchange programs were eligible for visas that were valid for three months and allowed single-entry into the United States.  They are now eligible for two-year, multiple entry visas. This gives students the opportunity to return home for family visits or attend academic conferences abroad without having to renew their visa every time they leave the United States.

The new guidelines apply to Iranians and their dependents applying to study in “non-sensitive and non-technical fields.”  Media reports cite U.S. officials as explaining that the new policy excludes fields that would contribute to Iran’s nuclear or weapons-related activities.  Students currently studying in the United States will have to apply for a new visa in order to be eligible for multi-entry visa. For more information on changes to Visa Validity for Iranian students, please click here.

Click here to read Visa Regulations for Iranian Students: Overview & Analysis.

The following is a transcript of the interview with Dr. Nasr:

PAAIA: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the decision to change Iranian student visa validity as a big step forward in our support for the Iranian people.  In your opinion, what is the significance of this decision?

Dr. Nasr: This is an important development for the Iranian American community. For some time now, PAAIA, and others in the community have asked for change in the way in which U.S. visas are issued to Iranian students. Single entry visas force Iranian students to stay away from Iran and their families for long periods of time. This causes many hardships for students. They are not able to see loved ones, if there is a family tragedy they have to decide between going home and risking the continuation of their studies.

Keeping students from Iran for long periods of time also increase brain drain in the country, which ultimately defies the purpose of education and reduces its impact on Iran. But also as far as the United States is concerned, single-entry visas for Iranian students are self-defeating. Students are the most progressive segment of society, the force for change, and as we saw in 2009 the backbone of the democracy movement. The more often Iranian students return to Iran the more they will take back with them new ideas, inform people in Iran of what the world thinks, and also foster ties between Iranians inside Iran and the Iranian American community. All this serves the goal of bringing change to Iran.

This decision is important in another regard as well. It demonstrates the impact of credible grassroots organizations in the Iranian American community, such as PAAIA, on public debate and ultimately policy-making. Community organization was important in creating consensus on this issue, and enabled the voice of Iranian Americans to be heard in a fashion which was informative and persuasive.

PAAIA: Secretary Clinton specifically mentioned in her announcement that she has heard from many “Iranian students and Iranian Americans” that wanted this change.  What role did the Iranian American community play in convincing the Administration to implement this policy change? 

Dr. Nasr: The Iranian American community organized effectively to define what the problem was, why it was important to address it for humanitarian reasons, and why addressing it was actually beneficial to the goals of United States foreign policy regarding democratic change in Iran. In the process, the Iranian American community developed ties and relations with law-makers and policy-makers, and the give and take of ideas also underscored the importance of the Iranian American community. In this regard PAAIA played an important role, particularly because of the organization’s broad reach and the community-based approach it took to advocating for change. PAAIA’s chapters were important in gathering information on community opinion, and were able to identify issues and relevant cases, and then PAAIA’s members at every level played an important role in informing decision-makers of those opinions, and encouraging them to take action. In effect, PAAIA helped create a wave effect by pooling its resources–individual capabilities and relationships of its various members with decision-makers across the U.S. government in a collective and credible manner to make this important change possible. A change in any policy starts with first arriving at a clear understanding of what the problem is at the level of the whole community, and then being able to convey the relevant issues to those who make policy in a deliberate, thoughtful, and measured fashion. This bottom-up collaborative effort was done effectively by PAAIA.

PAAIA: What was the basis behind the old visa policy were Iranian students and exchange visitors were eligible for visas that lasted only three months and could be used to enter the country one time? 

Dr. Nasr: Visa issuance is generally guided by the principle of reciprocity and the norms that guide diplomatic relations under international law. Iran and the United States do not have formal diplomatic relations, and visa issuance between the two countries is generally highly restricted and limited in scope. As citizens of Iran, Iranian students were subject to these restrictions. Since they carry Iranian passports, the United States gave them only very limited visas, reciprocating the kind of visas Americans get if they were to go to Iran. The key was to convince the United States government to see Iranian students as a separate category and therefore unilaterally suspend the strict reciprocity rule. This meant breaking with strict interpretation of diplomatic practice in treating Iranian students. This approach is in keeping with the view that engaging the Iranian people separate from their government has to be reflected in practice.

PAAIA:  There are about 4,700 Iranian students in the U.S., according to the most recent figures from the Institute of International Education.  How will this policy change affect them?

Dr. Nasr: This remains to be seen. It is not a given that the numbers of Iranian students will necessarily increase. More flexible policy does not mean more visas, and Iranian students generally face many other hurdles to studying in the United States.  For example, it is difficult for most Iranian students to pay for higher education even with scholarships. But for those students who are here already, this change will be welcome. They will have to reapply for a new visa.  If the multi-entry visa is received, it will make it easier for them to deal with the difficulties of education in a foreign country.  They will be able to periodically visit their families, especially if there are emergencies or a specific reason that requires them to go back. In a recent case, I learned about a student who had a tragedy in her family, had to agonize over abandoning her education to go back to Iran or stay in the United States.  Bright and talented students who are coming here from Iran should not have to face these sorts of choices.

Dr. Vali Nasr is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University.  He has authored several books, the latest of which is titled Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World. Dr. Nasr serves on the board of PAAIA Fund, a 501(c)3 division of PAAIA that is devoted to education and community service.

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