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UMass-Amherst prohibits Iranian national students from taking engineering and science courses

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UMass Amherst / Twitter

In what it claims to be an attempt to begin complying with a more than two-year-old US law, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst has said that it will no longer allow Iranian citizens to enroll in many of its science and engineering programs. The school says that the policy is "unfortunate," but necessary to comply with sanctions against Iran. However, the law that it cites doesn't actually appear to require this. The university references the "Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012," which prohibits Iranian citizens from receiving US visas if they intend to attend college and then return to Iran to work in energy, nuclear, or related fields.

This does not appear to be a correct interpretation of US law

That's quite different from supposedly banning schools from teaching subjects to certain students, which it does not appear to actually do. "US law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals coming to the United States for education in science and engineering," a State Department official tells The Boston Globe. "Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis." Basically, if someone has a visa, they should be good to go — it doesn't appear that it's up to the college to enforce this policy.

UMass-Amherst claims otherwise. "There are significant penalties, both civil and criminal, that could potentially impact faculty, staff and students, for violations of this act and the related regulations and restrictions," it explains in a lengthy statement on the new policy. To some extent, the school almost makes it sound like this policy could be in protest to overbearing aspects of the law that have been causing trouble for many of its Iranian students, but that tone is very quickly dropped in favor of explaining that this is simply how the school reads this law and believes it must act. In fact, in a separate statement, it suggests that other universities have this same policy. It is unclear what other schools have this same policy.

When contacted, the school did not say whether it was reconsidering this policy or legal interpretation amid the national attention that it's been getting, however a spokesperson said that he expected the school to have more statements on the matter in the future. The State Department also intends to contact UMass about the policy, according to the Globe. For now, Iranian citizens in the US won't be able to enroll in some chemical, electrical, computer, mechanical, and industrial engineering courses as well as some physics, chemistry, microbiology, and polymer science courses at the university.