When it comes to breaking down barriers with Iran, many proponents of engagement argue that sporting diplomacy, cultural exchanges, and university and student ties are win-win strategies for which there is no downside.
Their assumptions are wrong. Sporting diplomacy more often reinforces dictatorships than breaks down barriers. When it comes to Iran, the problem has never been cultural, and so to believe soccer games and wrestling matches are a panacea is to seek a cure for a problem that never existed.
Cultural exchanges handled poorly can also backfire. The cultural exemption for Cuba travel before the lifting of sanctions was really a nod-and-wink excuse for tourism. And since Raúl Castro and the Cuban military controlled most of the Cuban hotel and tourism industry, cultural exchanges effectively subsidized the Cuban military. Ditto Harvard University’s expensive North Korea junkets, and the New York Times’ ethically-questionable Iran tours.
But what about university exchanges and the idea of welcoming Iranian student into U.S. universities? Certainly, there’s something to be said for imbuing Iranian students—many of whom have been subjected to a steady stream of anti-American propaganda for the length of their schooling—into the reality of American life. It is also true that, prior to World War II, Iranians who studied in the United Kingdom tended to become Anglophiles, those educated in French universities tended to be Francophiles, and those learning in German universities returned to become apologists for if not proponents of Nazism.
But is embracing university exchanges and academic visas for Iranian students wise? As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton actively encouraged Iranian students to come to the United States and eased the visa regimen for them. Put aside the lack of reciprocity: American universities welcome thousands of Iranians, but Iranian universities do not welcome more than a handful of Americans and the Islamic Republic certainly is reticent to grant visas to American passport holders in anywhere near the same numbers that the Clinton and Kerry State Departments have given visas to Iranian passport-holders.
Consider the latest Iranian defense industry announcements. When the Iranian Minister of Defense is calling out ten universities for contributing to the research to help Iran build new jet engines. Ditto Iran’s ballistic and nuclear programs: There is no firewall between military and academic work at Iran’s top universities. In effect, U.S. universities are centers of learning first and foremost; their Iranian counterparts are dual use. Many of Iran’s scientists held university positions while working to expand the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ military capabilities. While the State Department theoretically monitors Iranian students, few are sent home for switching majors; the way the rules are written, it is not the job of universities to report Iranian students who begin studying sensitive fields and the Obama administration isn’t interested in enforcing the rules.