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April 07, 2014

Iranian students will now have the opportunity to participate in American college courses, online and in person.  (Mohamed Somji/Flickr)

Despite ongoing tense relations between Iran and the United States, the Obama administration is encouraging a unique partnership between the two countries. A new policy is meant to promote educational exchanges and, for the first time, will allow Iranian students to access U.S. courses online.

Listen to an extended interview with edX's Anant Agarwal here:

The number of Iranian students who want to attend college in the U.S. is on the rise, but cost and strict visa policies make it difficult. That will change somewhat under a recent ruling by the U.S. Treasury Department which will permit academic exchanges and allow students in Iran to access American online courses.

Abbas Amanat is an international studies professor at Yale. He teaches modern Middle East history.

"I think any move to open up toward Iran in education and intellectual exchanges is very much welcome," Amanat said.

Over the past 30 years Amanat has seen firsthand how the lack of academic exchanges has stifled teaching and learning -- in both Iran and America.

Some American-produced courses are still restricted in certain countries. See how two of the top providers, Coursera and edX, are operating globally:

“Even the American Institute of Iranian Studies had tremendous difficulty in bringing scholars over or to allow for American academics to visit Iran,” Amanat said.

Amanat says while Iranians have been exposed to a huge amount of anti-American propaganda over the past three decades, public opinion doesn't necessarily always mirror state policies.

"I think there’s still a huge amount of goodwill and enthusiasm to know about the outside world; to know about the new trends in science and humanities in the United States,” Amanat said.

Still, Iran’s nuclear program remains a problem for much of the international community and some Iranian hardliners do support isolation from the rest of the world -- not the ideal climate for cultural openness.

Richard Bejtlich is a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligenge at the Brookings Institution. According to Bejtlich, international academic exchanges have always posed some security threat.

“We know that there are certain countries who use both students and professors as a means to increase the possibility of espionage,” Bejtlich said.

However, says Bejtlich, the government should not be concerned necessarily with the new availability of online courses.

“There are plenty of books, webinars and YouTube videos that show in great detail how to do computer security from both the defense and offense perspective, so I don't see that this new platform as any real reason for concern," Bejtlich said.

Many of the online courses that will now be open to Iranian students come from MIT and Harvard’s initiative, edX.

EdX, an online course provider, has been working with the State Department to get their content released worldwide. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

CEO of edX, Anant Agarwal, admits open access in Iran presents certain security challenges, but he thinks academic exchanges – even online courses – could help paper over differences between Iran and the United States.

"When people are educated, they learn from you and they benefit from you, it’s hard to imagine they will come back and harm you," said Agarwal. "I call it enlightened self interest.”

Over the past year, edX has been working with the State Department to get its content in the hands of anyone with a cellphone or internet connection in embargoed countries like Cuba, Sudan, Syria and Iran. And, Agarwal says, it has paid off.

“We’ve been able to get their help to gradually lift the sanctions,” Agarwal said.

But not every online course provider is jumping in with both feet. Last year, the for-profit educational company Coursera, which is based out of Stanford University, blocked access to its advanced science and technology courses in three countries: Cuba, Sudan and Iran.

"Right now, we just want to make sure that nothing in any of the courses we offer might raise any alarms," said Coursera's General Counsel David Liu.

Acording to Liu, the company wants to make sure it fully understands the agreement before unlocking its content.

"We are very eager to reopen our service in Iran, as long as we're sure our service will indeed be in compliance with this new license," Liu said. 

Some advanced science and technology courses -- like an MIT course on flight aerodynamics -- will still be prohibited.

Security experts suggest the government is unlikely to make these courses available anytime soon.

technology and innovation, increasing access and success, global competitiveness, iran

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