Sanctions Law Applies To Iranian Students Preparing For Energy or Nuclear Sector Careers In Iran

August 10, 2012

On August 10, 2012, President Obama signed into law the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 [Pub.L. 112-158]. Section 501 of that law provides:

(a) The Secretary of State shall deny a visa to, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall exclude from the United States, any alien who is a citizen of Iran that the Secretary of State determines seeks to enter the United States to participate in coursework at an institution of higher education (as defined in section 101(a) of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1001(a)) to prepare the alien for a career in the energy sector of Iran or in nuclear science or nuclear engineering or a related field in Iran.

This provision is effective "with respect to visa applications filed on or after" August 10, 2012. The bipartisan legislation, led by the chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), respectively, passed both the House and Senate almost unanimously.

Here is a parsing of the statutory elements, along with some focus questions:

Consequences of being covered by the law:

  • Express consequences:
    • DOS "shall deny a visa"
    • DHS "shall exclude from the United States"

Some general questions:

  • How does it affect prospective students who would like to come to the United States after August 10, 2012 to begin their studies?
  • How does it affect covered Iranians who were outside the US on August 10, 2012 on a "brief, casual, innocent" visit abroad, and who had planned to reenter the US to resume their studies?
  • How does it affect covered Iranians who were in the US on August 10, 2012, but would like to travel abroad after that date and then return to resume studies?
  • How does it affect prospective or current students who will study in a nonimmigrant status other than a student status (e.g., an H-4 dependent)?
  • Although the language of the law focuses on visas and admission to the United States, can the law be read in any way so as to impact:
    • Change of status?
    • Extension of stay?
    • Practical training/Academic training?

Triggers in the law, with some questions:

  • The provision is triggered when "the Secretary of State determines" an Iranian citizen is covered by the provisions [Does requiring a DOS determination limit application of the law to Iranian students applying for visas?]
  • Basis of the Secretary of State's determination:
    • Citizen of Iran
    • "Seeks to enter the United States" [Does this refer only to initial entry, or to subsequent entries as well?]
    • "To participate in coursework" [Does the requirement spare Iranian students who are on post-completion OPT, since they are no longer participating in coursework? Could "to participate in coursework" be interpreted in an overly broad way to include the teaching courses, viewing both students and teachers as "participants" in coursework?]
    • "at an institution of higher education"
    • "to prepare the alien" [does "prepare" mean prepare for a new career only, or does it also apply to "further preparation" in the same career?]
    • "for a career in" [is a "career" something more than a "job"?]
    • One of the following:
      • "the energy sector of Iran" [this is broadly worded; does a career in "the energy sector" include, for example, someone who wants to come to the US for an MBA to further a career in energy financing, management, sales, etc.? i.e., who will be working in the energy sector, but in a non-scientific capacity?]
      • "nuclear science"
      • "nuclear engineering"
      • "a related field" [again, broadly worded; what about someone coming to study physics to pursue a career in teaching science in schools?]
    • "in Iran" [what if they plan to pursue their career in the US (as would a permanent resident, who is required to reside in the US), in Europe, anywhere other than Iran?]

Questions like these make advising difficult. Current students who want to travel and reenter would have to do so knowing that these questions are unanswered, which makes travel a risk that only they can decide is worth taking. A student who needs legal advice in order to weigh that risk should consult an attorney.

In the July, 2013 Issue of SEVP Spotlight, published by the DHS Student and Exchange Visitor Program, SEVP included the following "Note from the Department of State" that provided some helpful guidance:

"A Note from the Department of State

The "Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act" was enacted August 10, 2012. According to Section 501, Iranian citizens are ineligible for U.S. visas if they are seeking to enter the U.S. to participate in coursework at an institution of higher education for a career in Iran's:

  • Petroleum sector;
  • Natural gas sector;
  • Nuclear energy sector; or,
  • Nuclear science field; or,
  • Nuclear engineering field.

Examples of fields of study that render a visa applicant ineligible include:

  • Petroleum engineering;
  • Petroleum management;
  • Nuclear science;
  • Nuclear engineering; or,
  • A related field.

Individuals seeking to study in other fields, such as business, management or computer science, but who intend to use these skills in Iran's oil, natural gas or nuclear energy sectors, are also ineligible for visas. Consular officers will review each visa application submitted on or after August 10, 2012, to determine if the applicant is ineligible for a visa under this provision. For additional information on U.S. visas, please visit Travel.State.Gov."