Forum: American Colleges Should Stop Recklessly Sending Students to Iran

By Trevithick, Matt | New Haven Register (New Haven, CT), July 26, 2017 | Go to article overview

Forum: American Colleges Should Stop Recklessly Sending Students to Iran


Trevithick, Matt, New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)


An American student, Xiyue Wang, who was in Tehran studying a dynasty that ended nearly a century ago, has been detained and sentenced to jail in Iran, likely without convincing proof. Universities in the United States must ban sending students to Iran until it demonstrates a willingness to stop turning them into geopolitical pawns. Based on my experiences, and in light of the long list of Westerners detained by the Iranian government in recent decades, it is reckless for American universities to ignore the real threat that students face when they travel to Iran.

This is a painful position to for me to promote. Such exchanges have had a transformative effect on my life. I was introduced to the Middle East through the Beirut Exchange. I worked for four years at the American University of Afghanistan, having the honor of representing America's envied higher education system while doing my part to find more effective tools for U.S. foreign policy through research and writing. I wrote a short book detailing the life of a little-known Persian poet from Afghanistan whose studies in the United States in the 1970s led to a groundbreaking PhD documenting the previously unknown influence of Rumi on Walt Whitman. I am a member of the annual Dartmouth Conference, established in the 1960s so that prominent civilians in Russia and the United States could work together to avoid war; all its participants readily agree that student exchanges must continue, a position the institution has hewed to even at times when the Washington consensus considered the Soviet Union a rough approximation of the Death Star.

But I, too, became caught up in geopolitical forces when I was studying Farsi at Tehran University. I was grabbed off the street without reason or apology and ended up spending 41 days in Evin prison.

Exchanges and related programs represent an important component of relations between countries, even those that can't find much to agree on. At one end of the spectrum, such initiatives model polite behavior between nations looking to impart a positive image, and at the other, they assist with the generation of informed and creative approaches to regional policy, authored by folks who have actually been there. In either case, they are invaluable for building trust in the community of nations.

As a result, most governments have the decency to decouple politics from young foreign students researching obscure topics in dusty libraries.

But this is not true in Iran, where a hostile approach to all things America is the bedrock of Iranian policy. That suspicion occasionally bleeds into a skepticism of our Western allies; European students I met in Tehran spoke with muted voices about their purposefully mundane studies, which consisted of muted discussions with academics who knew far more than they would ever publish. …

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