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Stop sanctions against Iranian students in the Netherlands

Iranian students in ‘sensitive’ studies should not be seen as posing a threat. They are usually not secretive nuclear scientists, but scientists, artists, architects, economists. These students, amongst the brightest minds from Iran, find themselves caught up in a broader xenophobic context.

While the Netherlands awaits elections at the end of the summer to elect a new cabinet after their government suddenly resigned in April, the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service, or the Immigratie en Naturalisatie Dienst (IND), controversially halted processing visa and residency applications made by Iranian citizens. Students for example at the Technical University in Delft received private messages like this one from their human resource departments: 

“The Dutch Immigration Service (the IND) have sent us information about the consequences, due to the EU Council's new Regulation to implement enhanced sanctions against Iran, No. 267/2012 of 23 March 2012. The Dutch government has decided to put every MVV- or residence permit application, from Iranian nationals, on hold. In other words: the IND will not decide on any of these applications (already submitted / in process) for the time being.” 

“This regulation applies to all kind of applications: MVV visa, residence permit extensions, change of purpose application, stay with family member permit, knowledge migrant/researcher permit, et cetera.”

After a close reading of the EU Council’s new regulations of March 23rd, they appear to be  primarily economic sanctions. It is therefore possible that the steps taken by the Dutch authorities can be interpreted as discriminatory, and contrary to Dutch and European law.

There has been much confusion in the Iranian student communities in the Netherlands about who could be hit by these regulations. Listening to and reading their stories is often heartbreaking. Ali, a researcher in Isfahan told me that he had received the offer of a scholarship but could not accept it because of the suspension of visa applications for the Netherlands. “I am really stressed out. Please! I really hope this works out.” Or Reza, a dentist doing research on biomaterials. He received a letter from the university stating that it was unsure whether he could continue his research.

By now it has become clear that the groups that are facing the most serious problems are mostly PhD students or applicants, students who have recently finished their Master degree programme in the Netherlands, and students whose discipline is considered to be “sensitive”. What studies exactly are considered sensitive has not been cleared up and is taking too long. Are all petrochemical studies for instance problematic? Or just some degree programmes? And how should these regulations be interpreted given the 2010 verdict of the Dutch court that Iranian nationals cannot be excluded from facilities or study programmes based on their nationality? In practice, there seems to be a lot of confusion and many grey zones. The IND has taken steps to process student and jobseekers’ applications, so some PhD students have received requests to provide information about their research. The combination of not being clear about the rules and having to monitor PhD students seems, at best, clumsy.

On the website of Delft University of Technology, where in recent years several hundred Iranian students have studied, a page titled “Additional Information for Iranian Students” reads, “The MSc program [Masters degree] Aerospace Engineering is listed or contains elements that are sanctioned. You [Iranian students] will therefore have to submit an additional document to Delft University of Technology stating that you have obtained an exemption to the sanction. This exemption can be given by the Dutch Ministry of Education. If you cannot provide this document, you won’t be able to get a visa to start your study programme. 

This July, an Iranian student hoping to enroll in a Masters of Science degree programme received an exemption rejection letter from Halbe Zijlstra, the State Secretary of Education, Culture, and Science, which read, “My consideration is that allowing you to take this course of study would present an unacceptable risk of contributing to Iran’s proliferation-sensitive activities or to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems in Iran.” This specific student was simultaneously accepted into a different Dutch university programme, and was able to still receive a visa. The degree programme in question involved developing cleaner industrial processes, better medicines, and methods for combating diseases. In other words, she was not a rocket scientist. It seems that the Secretary of State has some incentive to exaggerate and politicise the situation of an ordinary young Iranian woman hoping to get a degree outside of the country.

The Netherlands’ stringent measures against Iranian students is an exception amongst European Union member states. No other EU countries have taken the same steps as the IND has in The Netherlands, although there were informal incidents with Iranian students or jobseekers in other EU countries as well. Yet still, Sander Eijk, a spokesman of the IND told the Persian Dutch Network, “we [IND] just follow the EU regulations and if anyone is going to make a complaint they should address the European Commission or the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs…  Iranians are welcome in the Netherlands, but they need to meet EU regulations.” However, mounting stress and debilitating uncertainty afflict the minds of many Iranian students in the supposedly “welcoming” Netherlands.

Iranian students have circulated a petition that labels the Dutch regulations as “arbitrary, discriminatory, unmerited, and unjustly punitive of Iranian people.” A signatory of the petition, Harry van Bommel, is a Socialist Party member of the House of Representatives and a staunch critic of the government’s policy. Marietje Schaakjes (D66, progressive, social-liberal party), member of the European Parliament, has asked parliamentary questions on the issue: “Does the Commission share my view that Iranian students, by enjoying (a part of ) their education in Europe, upon their return to Iran, could improve mutual understanding between Iranian and European citizens, which in turn could have a beneficial impact on EU-Iranian relations?” So far, no answer has been forthcoming.

Iranian students have been targeted before in the Netherlands, though not as randomly as currently. In 2008 Iranian students were excluded from taking certain academic courses and visiting designated places such as the nuclear energy facility in Delft. A discontent group of Iranian students challenged the policy by filing a law-suit against the government for what they believed amounted to a violation of Article 1 in the Dutch Constitution which states, “Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race, or sex or on any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.”

As the case made headlines, some among Dutch civil society sympathized with the Iranian students. The President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences at the time, Robbert Dijkgraaf, wrote a letter to the Minister of Education, Culture, and Science to protest the “indefensible” sanctions regulations. He reached the conclusion that the “far-reaching implications of the sanctions regulation [is] contrary to the free and international conduct of science”, and that the damage it was doing to the Dutch reputation of being “a country that welcomes science and scientific researchers” must end. This episode eventually came to an end two years later when a Hague court said there was “no objective and reasonable justification” for the Dutch government’s targeting of Iranian students. The issue remains sensitive in Holland, because of the memory of Abdul Qadeer Khan, one of Pakistan's top nuclear scientists who studied in Delft and left the country in the 1970s with secret blueprints, among others, for uranium centrifuge.

Iran is among the countries in the world with the highest brain drain. Especially Europe, Canada, and the United States benefit from these individuals. They come to countries like the Netherlands not only for work and study, but also for its culture of tolerance. As Schaakjes implied, however bad international relations may be, the Dutch door must stay open for the exchange of good intentions. Knowledge and culture are prime exemplars thereof. 

We are all aware that there are complex political problems inside and with the Islamic Republic, but tensions are only exacerbated by making the lives of ordinary students in countries like Holland impossible. They are an important bridge between Iran and the western world, have much to offer and are eager to learn. Iranian students in ‘sensitive’ studies should not be seen as posing a threat. They are usually not secretive nuclear scientists, but scientists, artists, architects, economists, and so forth. These students are amongst the brightest minds from Iran. Their talent and perseverance is the reason why Dutch universities and businesses took them on to begin with. Together with other international students, they make a significant contribution to what is known in Holland as the “Dutch knowledge economy”. Morever, they are also a source of income for the universities since they usually pay full tuition. Making Iranian money transfers more difficult has worried the universities, for example the president of the Technical University in Delft who has criticized “disproportional” interpretations of the sanctions.

The Netherlands has a fair, talent-absorbing system in which international students get the opportunity to pursue a career in Holland after they graduate. Their visa is extended for a year and they are allowed to search for a job in that period. If successful, they can and often do prolong their stay and eventually acquire citizenship. However, because of the suspension of Iranian applications, companies are refusing to hire Iranians because there are too many formal insecurities.

Maryam, a young Iranian woman who graduated in Sweden, received a job offer from Philips Healthcare but got into trouble because there were insecurities about her residence permit. Her employer wrote to the IND that they would terminate her contract if the issue would take up too much time. Another student currently in Sweden, a statistician, wanted to work together with a professor in The Netherlands. He was told: “I would like to discuss options for a PhD position, but before doing so I would like to know what your nationality is. It seems that you are of Iranian origin and if you have an Iranian nationality, then it might not be possible at all because of visa issues that I cannot do much about.”

The story of Nadjla, an Iranian female in Holland, is very telling. She sent me a message that read, “You may have already heard about my visa problem due to which I lost a job opportunity. My field of study is Engineering and Policy Analysis, which is not sanctioned. Having passed the first interview, I was invited for the second round. Everything went well in the interviews. [Then] I received an email which said despite the very positive impression I left, the company could not proceed with the my contract because of visa restrictions placed by the IND.”

In July, the IND began to properly process residency permit applications from Iranian nationals after a serious backlash from Iranians and Dutch citizens alike. “Applicants from Iranians who are not working in the sanctioned sectors will be processed as normal”, read the Dutch Immigration Service’s website. The Dutch interim Minister of Foreign Affairs, Uri Rosenthal (VVD, Liberal Party) reiterated the IND’s statement by promising that Iranian applications would be processed as soon as possible. One month later, the issue has not yet been resolved.

There has been extensive and widespread confusion amongst the Iranian student community in the Netherlands as a result of these regulations. Having partially retracted from their earlier suspension of visa applications, the interim Dutch government seems to be equally confused about how to proceed. It should come as no surprise then, that while lawmakers reflect and deliberate on what course of action to take, the lives of innocent Iranian students with no mal-intent are left unjustly hanging in the balance. The situation has sadly increased their scepticism towards Dutch politics in specific and European regulations in general 

The perverse interpretation of the Dutch authorities to suspend Iranian applications even before being sure what their stance is on the matter, and in contradiction to the verdict of a Dutch court only two years ago, should be seen in a broader xenophobic context. For example, the government has tried to ban dual nationality for all citizens, stating that individuals with other nationalities cannot be fully loyal to The Netherlands. Cosmopolitan Dutch citizens in New York and elsewhere however have successfully protested against this narrow mindedness. In reality, they were not the object of the amendment but considered as unfortunate collateral damage. The real intent of the new law is to force Turkish citizens and other “non-western allochtons”, non- western non-natives, to sever ties with their immigrant background and “integrate”. Today the amendment has been changed to accommodate cosmopolitan Dutch persons. The Dutch New Yorkers can keep their Dutch passport, but newcomers who are given the Dutch passport, for example Turkish citizens, are forced to give up their other nationality. It is a sad case of closet discrimination turning into blatant discrimination, and without any sense of shame.

When tourists enter the Amsterdam Museum today, they are sold a narrative about how tolerance is engrained in the “Dutch DNA”. Indeed, Amsterdam and Rotterdam were a safe haven for great thinkers such as John Locke, who wrote his Letter concerning toleration in Holland. During that time, the Golden Century, a period that is often looked back on to glorify the Dutch nation, the Dutch Republic saw a spectacular growth in international students. It fits a flourishing and open society to be hospitable and to protect foreign intellectuals. Especially those who live in dark times. If The Netherlands closes its borders for Iranian knowledge migrants, it betrays the values that it professes to respect.

About the author

Pooyan Tamimi Arab studied Art History and Philosophy in Amsterdam and New York. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Cultural Anthropology department of Utrecht University, writing a dissertation on the use of loudspeakers for the Islamic call to prayer in the Netherlands.


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