Donald Trump has taken a tougher stance toward Iran in the past year, including more sanctions, a travel ban and amped-up rhetoric. Mike Pompeo, the CIA director set to be nominated as Secretary of State, is an Iran hardliner.
But there's been collateral damage from these actions: sharply reduced flow in the pipeline of Iranian talent, a hidden but crucial source of talent for the U.S. high tech industry.
The number of non-immigrant visas, which includes student visas and those for highly skilled workers, given to Iranians was 19,801 in 2017, down from 29,404 in 2016, according to an analysis of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans. The tech industry had fought the travel ban, and it is still being challenged in court. But in December the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the newest version of the ban to stand.
Iran, a country of 80 million, is home to several major universities, including Sharif University in Tehran, sometimes called the MIT of Iran, and the University of Tehran. Top-tier science and math students have long found their way to the United States — making their mark in Silicon Valley and other high-tech areas, including NASA. Companies including eBay, Google, Twitter, Uber — and the venture capital industry, in general — have had Iranian-American executives playing a key role.
They are also particularly vulnerable, because of the lack of formal diplomatic ties between the United States and Iran.
What's happening to them may be the tip of a growing iceberg. The numbers suggest Silicon Valley's worst fear could be coming true: that the government would make it harder to recruit and retain top talent. That's particularly troublesome for America's high-tech hub, since about 71 percent of tech employees in Silicon Valley are foreign-born.
In legal briefs filed against the travel ban, tech companies have argued that their employees would be hurt by the ban, which will eventually make it more difficult for them to recruit from around the world. Silicon Valley executives also worry that reducing the free flow of people means reducing the free flow of ideas.