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Facebook diplomacy: UMass reverses policy prohibiting Iranians from some courses

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A Facebook petition that helped to enlist a lobbying group that pressured the US Department of State, Treasury, and the White House and ultimately forced a policy reversal is a sort of social-media seven-day wonder – at least according to one US-based Iranian advocacy group.

“Students at the UMass who began a Facebook petition contacted our organization through Facebook last Thursday and we immediately issued a statement and began contacting the State Department, Treasury, and the White House,” Jamal Abdi, policy director for The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), told the Monitor in a phone interview. “What these students managed to do in such a short time to avert what could have become a very damaging, nationwide policy among higher-education institutions, is remarkable and praiseworthy.”

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On February 6, the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s announced a policy to ban Iranian students applying for selected graduate programs.

According to NIAC, the new policy was based on the “Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012” enacted by the congress in August 2012, which states that Iranians are "ineligible for US visas if they are seeking to participate in higher education in preparation for a career in Iran’s petroleum, natural gas, nuclear energy, nuclear science, or nuclear engineering fields."

The new policy stated that UMass, "will no longer admit Iranian national students to specific programs in the College of Engineering (i.e., Chemical Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering) and in the College of Natural Sciences (i.e., Physics, Chemistry, Microbiology, and Polymer Science & Engineering) effective February 1, 2015."

“Basically, one student involved in a UMass Amherst research project ran into trouble getting back into [the US] when the State Department denied a visa, and as a result the project was delayed,” says Jamal Abdi. “Rather than take time to explore options, UMass took a discriminatory shortcut, passing the pain down to the students rather than finding a better solution.”

The university issued a statement about the new policy: "We recognize that our adherence to federal law may create difficulties for our students from Iran and regard this as unfortunate. Furthermore, the exclusion of a class of students from admission directly conflicts with our institutional values and principles. However, as with any college or university, we have no choice but to institute policies and procedure to ensure that we are in full compliance with all applicable laws."

However, a US State Department official told NBC News Tuesday, "US law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering. Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. We will reach out to UMass Amherst to discuss this specific decision."

The students' Facebook petition spawned the hashtag #WeAreUMass.

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“The outcry in the media, including social media, played a major role in convincing UMass to reverse this policy so quickly. The Facebook page and the #WeAreUMass hashtag that students organized were a huge part of that,” Abdi says.

He adds, “We do not believe this was an issue of bad intent on the part of UMass. Yet, we were convinced it would become a trend, a chain reaction in higher education. If this policy was allowed to stand our fear was that it would quickly be adopted across the board by other colleges and universities.”

NIAC President Trita Parsi released the following statement: “Sanctions have caused many problems, but they are not an excuse to discriminate against Iranian students. UMass has done the right thing to correct its mistake and we look forward to learning full details about how its new policy will ensure Iranian students are not discriminated against.

Students were quick to respond via both Facebook and Twitter.

In her statement, Mr. Parsi talked about, “the burdens that the sanctions have imposed on academic institutions and hope that eventually these measures are lifted,” Mr. Parsi adds in her statement. “Broad sanctions have punished many unintended victims but today’s action ensures that further pain will not be passed onto young Iranians who aspire to study in American universities.”

NIAC has previously worked to resolve the impact of sanctions on Iranian students many times in the past, including when TOEFL tests were suspended for Iranians, online courses were restricted for people inside Iran, and in the effort to secure multiple-entry student-visa privileges for Iranians.

“Ultimately, these issues will not go away until broad sanctions are lifted. We hope that diplomacy between the US and Iran can succeed in eventually achieving this. In the meantime, we will continue to work to prevent sanctions from punishing ordinary Iranians and Iranian Americans,” Parsi wrote in her statement.