The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) notes with concern the serious impact that sanctions placed on Iran by the United States will have on valuable scholarly activity.
Beginning with the 1996 passage of the “Iran and Libya” Sanctions Act, a series of legislative enactments and executive branch regulations in the United States have placed increasingly severe restrictions on activity involving Iran. As a scholarly association, MESA takes no position on United States policy toward Iran in general. The organization does, however, vigorously advocate scholarly research and exchange.
In that regard, we note that the text of the relevant legislation and regulations shows evidence of attempting to carve out protections for educational and scholarly activity. Given the issues at stake, it is especially important that such activity be encouraged; it would be difficult to claim that this is a time when people need to know less.
Yet we write out of a strong concern that the efforts to protect scholarship and education are not effective. A whole series of activities that might be considered normal scholarly research and study—such as conducting a public opinion survey—requires application to the relevant executive branch body (the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Department of the Treasury) for a license. Such a procedure is cumbersome at best and adds to an already restrictive environment for polling in much of the region.
Interest in other kinds of scholarly activity—including normal travel and research—would lead a scholar through a forest of legislation, regulations, and authoritative guidance in search of an answer on what is permitted, what requires a license, and what is forbidden. Even when officials provide answers with the best of intentions, guidance is complicated and sometimes indeterminate (using phrases like “case by case basis”). We are not only concerned that normal and salutary scholarly activity will be prohibited, but that even scholars in universities able to obtain helpful legal guidance will be discouraged from research and travel. Graduate students, independent scholars, and others who do not have such supportive research infrastructure may be at sea in determining what they may do.
In April 2016 we wrote out of a similar concern that amendments to the Visa Waiver Program passed into law would have an adverse effect on scholars who conduct research in a number of Middle Eastern countries.
We call upon lawmakers reviewing the long-standing network of Iran sanctions at this time, and executive branch officials responsible for implementing them, to take care not to continue imposing restrictions on the free flow of ideas and knowledge and to reach out to the scholarly community to understand the negative impact of these legislative decisions.