Iranian students feel the sanctions heat

Iranians keen to study abroad are unable to take required tests as they need to travel abroad, which is expensive.

Ordinary workers and students hoping to study abroad are among the first Iranians feeling the impact of a new wave of international sanctions aimed at punishing the Tehran regime for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, analysts say.

Iranians with modest incomes and those without government connections complain that the sanctions are pushing up the price of food and travel and hurting their businesses. Meanwhile, because of sanctions, Iranians keen to study at foreign universities are unable to take the required test to determine their proficiency in English. The result, some Iran specialists say, is that the wrong people suffer and Iran risks becoming something akin to Iraq prior to the 2003 US-led invasion - an isolated country whose ordinary citizens bear the brunt of international sanctions.

"The general cost of items in Iran has gone up because shipping goods to Iran has become more expensive following the difficulties caused by sanctions to reinsure the cargoes," said Trita Parsi, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "All these things trickle down to the population, rather than the regime itself." Jamal Abdi, the policy director of the opposition National Iranian American Council in Washington, is more blunt. He said the early verdict on "smart" sanctions was that they have proven to be "dumb".

The new obstacles facing students seeking to study abroad are particularly counter-productive, as they risk alienating a post-revolutionary generation of Iranians likely to serve as a catalyst for change, these analysts say. These students are required to pass a standardised proficiency test in English. However, one of the leading international organisations arranging these examinations, the US-based Educational Testing Service (ETS), has "temporarily" suspended activities in Iran.

Sanctions "affecting banks and financial institutions that conduct business in Iran" mean that it is currently "unable to process payments", ETS said in a statement on its website. It added that "it is working on a solution that will allow us to reopen registration as soon as possible" in Iran for its Test of English as a Foreign Language, or Toefl. US officials said Washington was exploring whether there are "alternative mechanisms" to allow ETS to continue its work in Iran.

ETS's suspension of activities in Iran is one consequence of the refusal by a growing number of private banks to co-operate with the Islamic republic because of US, United Nations and European sanctions. The UN Security Council imposed a fourth set of sanctions on Tehran in early June. The US Congress and the European Union this month imposed their own, far tougher penalties. These targeted the Islamic republic's vital oil and gas interests as well as its transportation, banking and insurance sectors.

Many in Europe, the United States and the Middle East suspect that Iran's nuclear programme is aimed at weapons development; Tehran insists it is designed solely to generate electricity and meet Iran's increasing demand for power. Some Iran experts, including Mr Parsi, believe that Washington and other governments sharply critical of the Iranian government are losing no sleep over the hardship inflicted by the penalties.

"It seems to be part of the [US] objective to make sure that the internal discontent will be exacerbated and as a result there will be more pressure on the government to change its policies", Mr Parsi said. "That can be effective in more democratic societies in which governments are responsive to their populations. But what we've seen last year is that the [Iranian] government is tremendously unresponsive to its own population," he said in a telephone interview from Washington.

The new impediments facing students are especially ironic. Mr Parsi and other Iran specialists note that US officials have publicly insisted that measures be taken to ensure ordinary Iranians were not punished by sanctions. For instance, Barack Obama, the US president, proclaimed in a message to the Iranian people celebrating their new year, or Nowruz, in March: "Even as we continue to have differences with the Iranian government, we will sustain our commitment to a more hopeful future for the Iranian people." In particular, he promised increased "opportunities for educational exchanges so that [more] Iranian students can come to our colleges and universities".

More sweeping sanctions are not entirely to blame for new barriers facing Iranian students, said Scott Lucas, a specialist in Iran-US relations at the University of Birmingham in England. "We've got it on pretty good authority that Iran's ministry of science and higher education has not allowed any postgraduate students to come to Britain to study certain subjects such as social sciences and the humanities", Mr Lucas said in a telephone interview from Birmingham.

Moreover, Tehran has not allowed government scholarship students to go to Canada, the US and Britain since last year. Scholarship students are instead being encouraged to study in China and Russia, Tabnak, an Iranian news website that is close to the ruling establishment, reported this week. The British Council, the British government's overseas cultural arm, is the other main provider of English language proficiency tests, known as IELTS. But the British Council was forced to suspend its operations in Iran in January 2009 because of intimidation of its local staff.

Iranian students keen to study abroad say they now have to travel to neighbouring countries to sit standardised English proficiency tests. It is an expensive procedure, said a female medical student who recently took one such test in Armenia. "But I had no other choice," she said on condition of anonymity. "There are so many applicants it has become a business opportunity for travel agents to arrange tours to Turkey, Dubai and Armenia just for those who want to take the exam".