A promising future in academia and business beckoned Majid Abbasi. His research on how welding affects the properties of steel earned him a doctorate from Brigham Young University and a job offer from the University of Alabama. He was also seeking to patent and commercialize a technique he’d invented to improve cleaning of contact lenses.
Then he made a fateful move that shattered those prospects: he visited his parents.
Since Abbasi went home to Iran on vacation in December, the U.S. government has barred him from returning. The State Department twice denied him visas, saying it had reason to believe he would engage in espionage, sabotage or prohibited export of sensitive information. Alabama withdrew its offer. Because of U.S. sanctions on trade with Iran, the startup that licensed his contact lens concept can’t pay him.
“My first reaction was the famous American slang: Holy Cow, seriously? I’m a scientist and avoid politics,” Abbasi, 31, wrote in an e-mail. “Sabotage, espionage, technology transfer are baseless, unfair labels. I do not appreciate such labels.”
Abbasi’s work isn’t sensitive, faculty members at Alabama and Brigham Young said.
“Majid was a gem everyone in the department knew and enjoyed being around,” said Tracy Nelson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Brigham Young.
As growing tensions and sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program spill into academia, Abbasi’s plight is becoming more common. At least half a dozen Iranian graduate students in engineering who were slated to attend universities such as Michigan State, Southern Illinois, South Carolina, Pittsburgh and Northwestern this year couldn’t come because the U.S. rejected their visa applications under the same espionage clause, Bloomberg News has found.
The visa denials run counter to the policy of the Obama administration, which has reached out to Iranian students and has said that its sanctions are designed to hurt Iran’s regime, not its people. The U.S. eased travel restrictions for some Iranian students in May 2011, and opened a “virtual embassy” in Tehran in December to foster communication. Enrollment of Iranian graduate students at U.S. universities more than tripled to 4,696 in 2010-2011 from 1,475 in 2004-2005, according to the Institute of International Education in New York.
“You -- the young people of Iran -- carry within you both the ancient greatness of Persian civilization and the power to forge a country that is responsive to your aspirations,” President Barack Obama said in a March 2011 message marking the Iranian New Year. “Your talent, your hopes, and your choices will shape the future of Iran, and help light the world. And though times may seem dark, I want you to know that I am with you.”
Now, more Iranian students are likely to face further barriers to entering the U.S. under legislation Obama signed last month. It ordered the Secretary of State to deny visas to any Iranians seeking to take coursework to prepare for careers in Iran’s energy industry, nuclear science, nuclear engineering or a related field.
The Senate Banking Committee drafted the provision. Chairman Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat, “wanted to make sure we weren’t inadvertently allowing technology or knowledge transfer” that could undercut U.S. sanctions prohibiting assistance to Iran’s oil industry and nuclear program, committee spokesman Sean Oblack said.
The State Department approved the restriction, said Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group in Washington.
“There’s a tug of war inside the State Department between supporters of outreach to the Iranian people and those who want to broaden sanctions,” Abdi said. “The new law suggests that the sanctions advocates have gained the upper hand.”
Tensions have been building between the U.S. and Israel over a possible Israeli strike on suspected Iranian nuclear weapons facilities. The visa denials likely reflect both classified intelligence information and concerns that students could pose a danger in the event of war with Iran, said Fred Burton, a former State Department special agent focused on Iranian terrorism.
“If you think about the saber rattling and war footing that everybody’s discussing, you want to minimize the probability of attacks here domestically,” said Burton, now vice president of intelligence for geopolitical consulting firm Stratfor in Austin, Texas.
American universities are eager to tap Iran’s students, many of whom excel in science and math. Iran finished eighth among 100 nations in the 2012 International Mathematical Olympiad, a math championship for high school students. Presidents of half a dozen universities including Carnegie Mellon, Rice and the University of Florida visited Iran in late 2008 to foster academic ties.
Of 23 new Iranian graduate students whom the University of Florida expected to enroll this semester, only 16 have shown up, University of Florida President Bernie Machen said. The other seven may have been denied visas, or have had difficulty transferring funds from Iran because of the sanctions, he said.
Iranian students are “a pool of very talented young people who desire further education in this country,” especially in science, engineering and math, Machen said. “We’re disappointed. Politics trumps education in this case.”
An Iranian this year won a Northwestern University fellowship for outstanding first-year graduate students in mechanical engineering, only to be refused a visa. His admission has been deferred, university spokeswoman Pat Tremmel said.
At the same time, Iranian espionage increasingly worries federal authorities.
“Iran’s intelligence operations against the United States, including cyber capabilities, have dramatically increased in recent years in depth and complexity,” James R. Clapper, director of National Intelligence, testified before Congress in January.
The Obama administration is also facing political pressure from Congress and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to crack down on Iran.
“From Day One in 2009, Congress has been coming at the administration like a steamroller on Iran-related issues in an effort to box us in,” said Reza Marashi, a former officer on the State Department’s Iran desk and now research director of the National Iranian American Council.
On Sept. 9, Romney called for “crippling sanctions” and criticized what he called Obama’s “policy of engagement” with Iran. “That policy has not worked, and we’re closer to a nuclear weapon as a result,” Romney said.
No Iranian students have been criminally prosecuted in the past five years for exporting restricted U.S. technology or munitions to Iran, according to the Justice Department. It declined to comment on whether any investigations are under way for export or espionage violations involving Iranian students.
Once in the U.S., Iranian students generally may only work on fundamental research that is publishable or in the public domain. They typically aren’t eligible for licenses that foreigners need to conduct weapons-related research under federal rules on arms traffic.
The State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs refused visas to 262 non-immigrants worldwide under Section 212(a)(3)(A)(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act in fiscal 2011, up from 101 in 2010 and 13 in 2000, according to the State Department.
The provision states that the consular officer “knows or has reasonable ground to believe” that the alien seeks to enter the U.S. to “engage solely, principally, or incidentally in any activity” to violate U.S. law related to espionage, sabotage or prohibited export of “goods, technology or sensitive “information.” Protected by a long-standing legal doctrine known as consular non-reviewability, denials are hard to appeal.
Consular officers “are erring on the side of caution, maybe if they have an inkling of a doubt,” said Marashi. “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled.”
Not all of the people turned away are Iranian. A Chinese graduate student admitted to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 2010 was denied a visa for the same reason, said Linda Gentile, director of the school’s office of international education.
Denials are based on “all the information we have available to us” after extensive reviews by federal agencies, said State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Finan, who declined to discuss individual cases. “If we’re denying the visa for that reason, it’s necessitated because of the evidence.”
Visa applicants from Iran warrant special attention if their academic pursuit appears on a U.S government list of “critical fields” used in developing weapons of mass destruction, according to a State Department manual.
Consular officers “are not expected to be versed in all the fields on the list,” the manual states. “Rather, you should shoot for familiarization and listen for key words or phrases from the list in applicants’ answers to interview questions.”
When Ali Moslemi was a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he went home on vacation in December 2009. He had to wait 10 months before his visa to return to the U.S. was granted. He earned his doctorate in 2010 and works in the oil industry in Houston.
Authorities may have held up his visa because he was researching propulsion, Moslemi said. While the U.S. stopped releasing the alert list about a decade ago, the last publicly available versions identified rocket propulsion technologies as a critical field. Moslemi, though, was working on a type of propulsion known as pulse jet, which occurs in heartbeats and in the swimming of squid and jellyfish, not in rockets, he said.
“It wasn’t military but it had the word propulsion,” said Moslemi, president of the Iranian Students and Graduates Association in the United States. Consular officials “are not technical people. If there’s a match, they say, ‘He’s a dangerous guy.”’
Iran was the leading foreign source of students at U.S. universities in the 1970s before the Islamic revolution that brought the current regime to power. The influx peaked at 51,310 in 1979-1980, triple the number from the second-biggest supplier, Taiwan. Some returned to Iran and became professors, who now guide their students to the U.S.
After the 1979 revolution, the number of students from Iran dwindled. Today, while Iranian undergraduates remain scarce in the U.S., the graduate-student population has rebounded, especially in the sciences.
Iran ranked seventh among countries sending graduate students to the U.S. in 2010-2011, up from 26th in 2004-05. The University of California enrolled 255 Iranian graduate students in 2011, up from 29 in 1999.
Outdated lab equipment and disillusion with the repressive regime drive the exodus of Iranian science graduate students. They’re also drawn by U.S. universities’ lofty reputation and financial support for graduate study, students said. Once they finish their degrees, they often seek jobs here rather than return to Iran.
The Iranian government doesn’t mind the brain drain of potential dissidents, said Mohsen Milani, an Iranian-born professor of politics at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
“The thinking is, ‘We have a large reservoir of brilliant students,”’ Milani said. “If we lose a few of them, that’s okay. That means less trouble internally.”
Mostafa Rahmani, director of the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Washington, didn’t respond to written questions.
The Obama administration tried to help Iranian students last year. Responding to complaints from Iranian-American groups that students couldn’t risk going home for weddings or funerals because they had to reapply to enter the U.S., it introduced a two-year, multiple-entry visa in May 2011 for Iranian students whose research isn’t sensitive or technical.
Obama personally approved the change, said Marashi, the former Iran desk officer at the State Department.
Announcing the multiple-entry visa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told students, “As long as the Iranian government continues to stifle your potential, we will stand with you. We will support your aspirations, and your rights.”
Multiple-entry visas are granted sparingly. Less than one-fourth of Iranian students at U.S. universities receive them, with the rest on single-entry status, according to an April 2012 survey by the student association headed by Moslemi.
Alan Eyre, the State Department’s Persian language spokesman, sought to reassure Iranian students last month. U.S. foreign policy “has nothing to do with granting or denying visas,” he said on Voice of America’s Persian Service.
“One of the priorities of the U.S. government is to make it easier and faster for Iranian students to come to the U.S. and continue their studies,” Eyre said.
Not so for Arash Khajeh. When the University of South Carolina offered him a full scholarship in its mechanical engineering Ph.D. program, he sought a visa at the U.S. embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Iranians travel to Dubai, Turkey, Armenia and elsewhere for visa interviews because the U.S. doesn’t have a consulate in Iran.
“I have been looking for a talented and motivated researcher,” Addis Kidane, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at South Carolina, wrote to the embassy. “His research is open to non-U.S. citizens.”
Khajeh’s visa was denied under the espionage clause. Hoping to get a visa from another embassy, Khajeh, 29, deferred his enrollment at South Carolina until next semester, he said.
Other Iranians already attending American universities have taken vacations home that turned out to be permanent. After obtaining his visa at the U.S. embassy in Ankara and entering Michigan State University in 2009 as a graduate student in mechanical engineering, Saleh Rezaei Ravesh maintained a 4.0 grade-point average, according to university administrators. His research, partly funded by NASA, involved developing software to simulate turbulent flows in problems such as weather forecasting.
Ravesh practiced a traditional Iranian musical instrument, the santour, which is a Persian dulcimer, and gave a concert on campus. He also sympathized with the Arab Spring uprisings and attended rallies celebrating rebel victories over the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, according to lab mate Husam Abdulrahman, a Libyan-American.
“He liked freedom,” Abdulrahman said.
Last December, Ravesh went home to see his ailing mother. Farhad A. Jaberi, a Michigan State professor and native of Iran, tried to dissuade Ravesh, who worked in his lab, because he feared visa problems might delay the student’s return. While Ravesh’s research couldn’t be used to design actual engineering systems, some terminology could be misconstrued as sensitive, Jaberi said.
Ravesh, 28, hasn’t been able to come back. After the U.S. consulate in Dubai denied him a visa under the espionage clause, he tried Tashkent, where the consular officer rejected him on the spot without giving a reason, Ravesh said. He had an interview in Ankara July 19, and is waiting for a decision. His belongings, including his santour, remain in the U.S.
“It has been an absolute nightmare and overwhelming stress for me, my wife and the rest of my family,” he said.
If he cannot leave Iran by the end of 2012, he is likely to face compulsory military service, he said. He’s barred from working in Iran until those duties are completed, he said.
Ravesh “is not an espionage type of guy,” said Peter Briggs, director of Michigan State’s office for international students and scholars. “It’s not like Mata Hari.”
Majid Abbasi, the Brigham Young scientist, is also back in Iran, unemployed. After earning his master’s degree from Sharif University of Technology, Iran’s premier engineering school, he arrived at Brigham Young in 2006. Several companies and the National Science Foundation sponsored Abbasi’s research on welding and joining, which was a significant contribution to the field, said Nelson at Brigham Young.
Gregory Thompson, a professor of metallurgical and materials engineering at the University of Alabama, offered Abbasi a post-doctoral appointment starting in March 1, 2012. While Thompson also conducts research for the Department of Defense, Abbasi would have worked on fundamental science funded by the university, Thompson said.
Abbasi, who enjoyed mountain biking and snowboarding, found the contact lenses he wore for those activities irritated his eyes. Using a microscope he modified to examine his own lenses, he developed a method of cleaning lenses. He and two others are seeking a patent.
“He’s primarily the science behind the device,” says co-applicant Jacob Allred, who was in Abbasi’s research group at Brigham Young.
Then Abbasi, who hadn’t seen his parents for more than five years, decided to go home for two months.
Nelson and Allred warned him against it. “I said, ‘Majid, I think that’s a bad idea,”’ Nelson said. “My feeling was, if you go home for a month or two, and come back, it looks bad. It looks like you’re taking information in and out. Or the government thinks you’re meeting with someone over there.”
After the U.S. consulate in Beirut denied his visa on April 16, Alabama couldn’t wait for Abbasi any longer. Nelson then invited him to return to Brigham Young as a post-doctoral fellow. Abbasi’s visa application was again rejected on Aug. 1.
U.S. sanctions against Iran prohibit Abbasi from playing any role in Soniclenz LLC, a company established by Allred and a business partner, which licensed the contact lens invention and is developing a prototype.
“We have asked Majid to participate” in the company as soon as it’s allowed, said Allred, an engineer with Exxon Mobil Corp. “I’ve done things with Majid personally, academically and in business. None of them raise any red flags.”