An Iranian student writes "Death to America" in Persian on the gate of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran on Sept. 2. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

Five American students began a two-year course of study at Tehran University, while three more Americans embarked on separate language programs in the Iranian capital, according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor.

The students' enrollment is a small sign, perhaps, of a change in atmosphere surrounding decades of hostile U.S.-Iran relations after world powers and their Iranian interlocutors announced a deal over Tehran's nuclear program in July.

"This really is a breakthrough,” Mahdi Ahouie, head of the Department of Iranian Studies at Tehran University, told CSM's Scott Peterson. Ahouie appeared to credit President Hassan Rouhani, who has sought to bring Iran out of its political isolation on the world stage.

"It seems to us this has changed, as part of Mr. Rouhani’s policy to open the country to academic exchange," Ahouie said. "We don’t know if it is because of the nuclear deal, but something has happened."

For years, American students and academics seeking access to Iran have struggled to gain visas. Those studying Persian with funding from the State Department have had to take courses in Tajikistan, a Central Asian state with a cultural connection to Iran. Such barriers didn't always exist, as Inside Higher Ed notes:

There is a long history of Iranian-American educational exchange. Iran once sent more students to the U.S. than any other country: according to data collected by IIE, there were more than 51,000 Iranian students in the U.S. in 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution. The number declined through the 1980s and 1990s to a low of 1,660 before beginning to rise again — this despite the additional hurdles Iranian students face in obtaining visas to come to the U.S. (for one thing, they have to leave the country to apply, as there is no U.S. embassy or consulate in Iran).

Many members of Rouhani's cabinet were beneficiaries of that earlier moment and are U.S.-educated, but the current generation in Iran faces tougher hurdles to get American degrees. And it's far more difficult for Americans to go the other way. In 2012-2013, only two Americans were studying in Iran in some capacity; the year prior, just one.

The benefits of these exchanges are most apparent to those who take part.

“You quickly realize that you're serving as an unofficial representative of the American people here, because other than Iranian-Americans, the vast majority haven't seen or met Americans in person before,” a recent American arrival in Tehran told Peterson.

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