After an Iranian intelligence agency accused Yale of being part of an anti-Iran plot backed by the United States, Great Britain and Israel, Yale officials said they are mystified; experts dismissed the claim, ascribing it to the Iranian regime’s paranoia.
The University was one of 60 international groups named to a list of subversive organizations — accused of creating unrest in the country after its disputed presidential elections in June — that the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence published early this month. University President Richard Levin said he has no idea why Yale was named to the list, which consists mainly of human rights and activist groups and think tanks, and experts on U.S.-Iran relations said they think the list does not pose a security threat to Yale.
But administrators said the list probably will not make it more difficult for Iranian students to come to Yale, partly because it is already difficult for Iranians to obtain American visas. Still, officials said they have contacted the United States State Department to ensure the security of members of the Yale community working in Iran.
“We don’t have any official explanation,” University Secretary and Vice President Linda Lorimer said, “since obviously the Iranian authorities are not indicating the basis for the inclusion of certain organizations and not others.”
Yale is the only entire university at large that was included on the list, though research centers at other schools, such as Stanford’s Hoover Institution and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, also appeared.
Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not return multiple requests for comment, and a representative of the United Nations’ delegation in Iran declined to comment.
The University is trying to determine if there are students or faculty who have active projects in Iran and has contacted the State Department for security advice for Yale affiliates in Iran, Lorimer said.
History professor Abbas Amanat said he thinks the list is the product of the paranoia he said has ruled Iran since its elections, and that he suspects the organizations on the list were not studied thoroughly before being added.
“It’s a time of crisis in Iran, and they’ve become more xenophobic than before,” Amanat said. “The list was put together haphazardly, and in many cases, the threat is only a figment of their imagination.”
Yale may be on the list because of the presence of human rights organizations in New Haven, such as the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center on Church Street, which Iranian authorities could have mistakenly identified with the University, he said.
Daniel Byman, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution — a Washington think tank that is also on the list — said in an e-mail that any Yale professor, graduate or affiliate’s involvement in a democratic opposition movement could have earned Yale a place on the list.
Mohamad Bazzi, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, another blacklisted think tank, said the list seems random and that it is hard to tell why specific organizations were singled out or what the pattern might be among them. He said he does not expect the list to have a significant effect because it was created by one of many intelligence institutions in Iran and may be dismissed by the other institutions.
“The bottom line, though, is that Iranian academics and intellectuals are going to have a hard time being in contact with almost any institution, think tank or university in the U.S. in this climate, with or without his list,” he said.
Lorimer and Ann Kuhlman, the director of international students and scholars, both said they do not think the recent list will make it more difficult for Iranians to get American permission to study at Yale, but she would not speculate on whether the Iranian government will try to prohibit its citizens from attending the University, where seven Iranian citizens are currently enrolled.
The journey from Iran to Yale is already a challenging one, Kuhlman said. Obtaining a visa from the American government is far from easy for Iranians, and many people apply multiple times before receiving permission to come here, Kuhlman said. Because the United States does not have an embassy in Iran, she added, prospective Elis usually travel to Turkey or the United Arab Emirates to apply for a visa.
“Even without this new wrinkle, a trip home is a very considered decision for most Iranian students,” she said. “They would need a new U.S. visa to come back [to school], and that can be difficult.”
An Iranian student pursuing a professional degree at Yale, who asked to remain anonymous for personal reasons, also said he does not expect the list will make it more difficult for Iranians to study at Yale.
But his visa application was rejected twice before it was approved, he said, and he had to pay his Yale tuition before he found out if he would be granted a visa.
“I haven’t seen my family for almost two and a half years,” he said. “And I’m not sure when I will see them because it is not easy for them to get a visa to come here and see me, and because if I leave this country I cannot come back.”
In addition to Yale, the list includes several think tanks, a variety of institutions that promote democracy such as the National Democratic Institute and the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and news outlets such as BBC Persian and the Persian-language Voice of America. Iranians have been told not to have contact with the organizations because they are part of an anti-Iran plot backed by the United States, Great Britain and Israel, the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month.