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Sanctions on Iran squeeze students in U.S.

Exchange rate on currency tripled

In the past year, increasingly tough sanctions have devastated Iran’s oil industry and contributed to rampant inflation and unemployment there, all part of a plan to pressure Iran to curtail its nuclear ambitions.

But the international sanctions have had another, unintended, consequence. They have caused the Iranian currency to nose-dive, and for Iranian students abroad who rely on savings or family support from back home, the collapse has doubled or tripled the cost of their foreign education.

It is not that they have less money, but that their money has lost its value overseas. For many years, a dollar was worth around 10,000 Iranian rials. But last year, after additional restrictions were placed on banking and the oil market, and in the face of reported domestic mismanagement, the rial plummeted. By late 2012, Iranians reported paying 40,000 or 50,000 rials for a dollar; the rate has now leveled off at around 33,000.

In the absence of diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran, granting visas to Iranians who want to study in the United States has been seen as a way to build bridges between the two countries.

But for students who had been relying on rials to help finance their education, the rial crash has been devastating.

“I was in good financial standing before this crisis. . . . I had enough to take care of myself,” said Mahdy Saedy, 35, who had saved around 300 million rials to use as he worked toward an electrical engineering doctorate at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His savings were worth around $30,000 when he arrived in 2008, and he had planned to make them last until he graduated.

Instead, this month he had to borrow $190 from friends to pay for groceries. Many other Iranian students he knows are in similar straits.

“I feel terrible,” said Saedy, who founded his university’s Iranian Student Association and has been looking for ways to find loans and other support for fellow Iranian students. “I keep energizing my friends, saying things will be okay, but we don’t know what we’re going to do.”

According to data from the Institute of International Education, 6,982 students from Iran are studying in the United States, up from 5,626 last year. For many, the path to get here is arduous; they must travel to other countries that have U.S. embassies and convince consular officers that they deserve a visa.

Among other things, they are often required to show that they can afford their educations here. Now, some worry about falling out of legal status if they are unable to afford to stay in school. And many worry that if they return to Iran they will not be able to get another U.S. visa to complete their studies here.

The problem is not likely to be solved soon, said Bernie Machen, president of the University of Florida, who recently met with some of the university’s 63 Iranian students to discuss their financial problems.

Machen said the university could help with emergency funds and would solicit additional money elsewhere, but added that such measures will help only in the short term. Future applicants from Iran may not be admitted if they cannot show they have adequate funding to support themselves, he said.

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