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Cash-strapped Iranian students in U.S. hope nuclear deal will ease tuition woes

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after a ceremony at the United Nation
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after a ceremony at the United Nation

By Jonathan Kaminsky

(Reuters) - When Mohammad Hamedi Rad arrived in the United States last year, he carried his Iranian passport, a hard-won student visa and a backpack containing $14,000 in hundred dollar bills, because there was no simpler way of getting money into the country.

"It was scary," Hamedi Rad, a chemical engineering graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said of his late-night arrival in Chicago, where he declared the funds to airport customs officials. "I've never carried that much money before. I was extremely nervous."

Hamedi Rad's experience is by no means unheard of among many of the thousands of high-achieving, mostly middle-class young Iranians who are coming to the United States to study in increasing numbers despite U.S. and international sanctions on their homeland.

After gaining admission, they must navigate a way around sanctions on Iranian banks that make direct legal wire transfers to the West a practical impossibility, impeding the students' ability to pay tuition or transfer money for living expenses. Obtaining a U.S. visa adds to the logistical hurdles and a depreciated Iranian rial means money can be tight.

The hardships facing Iranian students in the United States and elsewhere were spotlighted after a clause aimed at aiding them appeared in a landmark deal struck last month between Iran and world powers on curbing its nuclear program.

"Many students are suffering," said Tony Akhlaghi, who has served as faculty adviser to a Persian cultural club at Bellevue College, outside of Seattle. "They cannot get money from home, and the price of the dollar makes things very hard."

Under the November 24 interim agreement, Iran agreed to halt its most sensitive nuclear activity in return for a 6-month respite from some of the sanctions that have crippled its economy.

As part of the bargain, the United States and its partners agreed to open up a channel between Iranian and foreign banks to enable "direct tuition payments to universities and colleges for Iranian students studying abroad."

At the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, more than 51,000 Iranians were studying in the United States, far more students than from any other nation, according to figures provided by the Institute of International Education (IIE).

With relations between the countries in a deep freeze, that figure fell precipitously to a low of fewer than 1,700 by 1999. Since then, Iranian students have been steadily returning to the United States, the IIE reports.

This year, 8,744 Iranians are in the United States on student visas, more than at any time since the late 1980s. Most are graduate students, many focusing on math and science, who are more likely than undergraduates to receive stipends covering a portion of their tuition and living expenses.

FINANCIAL DURESS

But the return of Iranian students has not come without hiccups. Students must travel out of Iran to acquire a visa because Washington has no embassy in Tehran. In Hamedi Rad's case, it entailed traveling twice to Dubai, waiting 111 days and arriving at school a month late.

Additionally, the Iranian rial lost about two-thirds of its value against the U.S. dollar over the 18 months to late 2012, effectively wiping out years of Iranian family savings. It has since recovered some ground and stabilized.

Last month's nuclear deal offers the potential for tangible help for Iranian students, authorizing $400 million in state assets frozen abroad to be used for tuition payments to foreign colleges and universities over the six-month period, according to a White House fact sheet.

Precisely how, when and perhaps even whether that money will be spent will be the subject of discussions this week in Vienna, when Iran and major powers begin talking about how to implement the accord, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Iranian students are hopeful the deal will help ease their woes, although it was not immediately clear that it would help students already in the United States to transfer private funds to pay for their educations.

The Iranian Interests Section in the Pakistani embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to questions by Reuters.

Saghi Modjtabai, executive director of the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, said that in the middle of last year her group began hearing from financially strapped students who were late on tuition payments and struggling to pay for essentials like food and rent.

After surveying nearly 1,000 Iranian students in the United States, her group found over 90 percent were in financial difficulty. Her group and the IIE last spring raised over $100,000 and negotiated tuition and meal plan deals with schools across the country for 67 students on the cusp of attaining their degrees.

Among those given support was Ali Samadian, a petroleum engineering graduate student at Texas Tech University, who said in a thank-you letter that without the help he would have been forced to leave the country short of completing his master's degree.

"I was financially in trouble and I was so worried that it was also affecting my performance at school," he wrote. "But now that I have your generous support I feel relieved and I can focus on my education as effectively as possible."

Still, many more students were left without needed assistance, Modjtabai said. Some dropped out and returned home, while others may have found work beyond what the terms of their student visas allow.

"I continue to get email from students who are back in the same place in terms of their financial hardship," she said.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Laila Kearney in San Francisco and Dana Feldman in Los Angeles)

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