The early verdict on the new Iran sanctions is that even the "smart" sanctions have proven to be, well, dumb. Instead of targeting Iranian government officials connected to the nuclear program or who are complicit in human rights abuses, the new sanctions are punishing young Iranians who have been the greatest allies of democracy, human rights, and accountability in Iran.
Late last week, it was revealed that young Iranians looking to attend college abroad are now facing serious impediments because of new sanctions. The Educational Testing Service -- the US-based company that provides standardized tests necessary to apply for college, like the GRE and the TOEFL-- announced that it was suspending tests for hopeful students in Iran in order to comply with recently passed UN sanctions.
Back in March, President Obama recorded a statement to Iran for Norooz -- the Iranian New Year -- in which he promised to "sustain our commitment to a more hopeful future for the Iranian people," which he said would include "increasing opportunities for educational exchanges so that Iranian students can come to our colleges and universities..."
But with the announcement that standardized testing has been suspended in Iran due to sanctions, President Obama has failed to live up to that commitment.
This President claimed that he could walk and chew gum at the same time. But in placing "pressure" at the center of his Iran policy, every other element of the President's Iran strategy is being subsumed by a singular focus on punitive actions, including the President's "outstretched hand" promises to the critical demographic of Iranian youth. For those keeping score, the UN passed multilateral sanctions against Iran on June 9, which were then followed by more stringent, unilateral sanctions passed by Congress and signed into law by the President on July 1.
In the weeks that have passed, Iranian civilian jets have been denied access to European airports and, because Congress' sanctions specifically forbid companies from providing jet fuel to Iran, Iranian passenger planes are struggling to find ways to refuel, doubling the cost of travel for Iranians. Meanwhile, many of the same Iranians who were taking part in protests and fighting brutal government repression last year are now feeling the crunch of sanctions as the prices for most goods rise steeply.
And now, young Iranians who want to travel the world and study in universities in America and Europe are finding that US-led sanctions are denying them that opportunity.
President Obama seems to understand the importance of connecting Iran's youth to the world, given that he has placed an emphasis in his outreach efforts on student exchanges and opening up the Internet. Iran is a country of young people -- 60% of Iranians are under thirty. All of these youth were born after 1979, post-Islamic Revolution, post-hostage crisis, and many even post-Khomeini. They have only lived under the broken promises of the Revolution and yearn for greater rights, more opportunities to express themselves, and increased interaction with the outside world. They are not moved by the Iranian government's propaganda and don't find relevance in the anti-Americanism that many in Iran's government claim as its raison d'être.
Young Iranians hold the greatest hope for a democratic Iran that has positive relations with the US and its neighbors. But by punishing these young Iranians and providing reasons to resent and distrust America, we play into the hands of those in Iran's government who are more comfortable with isolated, dejected young population than with a vibrant youth that is connected to the outside world and adamant about their rights and aspirations.
President Obama isn't the only one who understands the importance and power of Iran's youth. Ahmadinejad's government is increasingly exerting pressure on young Iranians, a continuation of the crackdowns at university campuses that has been central to Iran's efforts to suppress dissent over the years. There are instances of increasing cultural repression -- such the policing of haircuts and nail polish, and new restrictions on movies and music. There are also expanding attempts to infiltrate and influence young Iranians through schools and universities, including a recent announcement that the government would be dispatching clerics to schools this fall to counter Western influence in classrooms.
Clearly Iran's government understands that Iran's young people are the locus for change in Iran. But the US will only alienate these young people by telling them they can't study in America or even take the GRE.
Obama Administration officials said for months that they only sought sanctions that would punish Iran's government, not its people. But it's unclear if any actions were actually taken in this regard. Sanctions are rife with unintended consequences -- just look at how US sanctions last June blocked American communication software from being legally available in Iran, even as Iranians depended on Internet communication tools to broadcast their protests to the outside world. Those sanctions have thankfully been repealed, but not until the damage had already been done.
President Obama may not have intended to ban Iranian students from studying abroad. But until he reconciles his stated intentions towards the Iranian people with his Administration's prioritization of pressure, a pattern of contradictions will continue to emerge between what the President promises on Iran and what policies are actually being pursued.