During the first decade of the 21st century, the National Academies, working with a number of partner organizations in Iran, carried out a program of U.S.-Iran engagement in science, engineering, and health (herein referred to as science engagement). This summary, supported by the complete report, reviews important aspects of the science engagement program, including: (a) objectives of the program, (b) opportunities and constraints in developing the program, and (c) scientific and political impacts of the activities. Suggestions for future activities that draw on the conclusions and recommendations that have emerged from workshops and other types of interactions are set forth. Of course, the political turmoil within Iran and uncertainties as to the direction of U.S.-Iran government-to-government relations will undoubtedly complicate initiation and implementation of new science engagement activities in the near term.
The Statement of Task for this report is as follows:
The report will document the history of the National Academies’ cooperation with Iran over the past 10 years. It will describe the nature of the workshops, pilot projects, individual visits in both directions, continuing consultations, and types of relationships that have been developed and have flourished between U.S. and Iranian scientists, engineers, and health professionals during this period. It will comment on the significance and impact of the activities, practical considerations in carrying out activities, and opportunities for future work.
The primary objective of the National Academies in embarking on an engagement program has been to achieve scientific benefits for both sides and for the international community more broadly. At the same time, many American and Iranian participants and important government officials in the United States and Iran have believed that science engagement can contribute to the evolution of an improved political environment for development of less adversarial relations between the two governments.
Iran has significant science capabilities in a number of fields of regional and global interest. However, in many ways the Iranian scientific community has been isolated from the main stream of international science. The engagement activities have been designed to enable scientists from the two countries to benefit more fully than had previously been possible from cooperation in science education, research investigations, and applications of technology in areas that the two governments consider non-sensitive.
At the same time, it has not been possible to insulate U.S.-Iranian exchanges from the strained relationship that has existed between the two governments for many years. However, with two important exceptions that are discussed below, cooperation in science has been possible without excessive political or security interference in either country.
More than 500 scientists from over 80 institutions in the two countries have actively participated in engagement activities sponsored by the National Academies together with partner organizations in Iran. Hundreds of additional scientists in the two countries have met with professional colleagues from abroad during site visits. Thousands of Iranian scientists and students have witnessed, in person and via live Internet broadcasts, lectures that were delivered by American scientists in Iran.
Seventeen jointly organized workshops, usually involving about 25 participants, have been the primary mechanisms for carrying out this engagement effort. An important criterion in selecting topics for workshops has been ensuring a symmetry of interests and capabilities. Each side has been expected to bring ideas to the table so that neither side dominates discussions. The workshops can be clustered as follows.
Food-borne Diseases (2),
Effective Use of Water Resources (3),
Earthquake Science and Engineering (2),
Science, Ethics, and Appropriate Uses of Technology (2),
Science and Society (2),
Preventing and Responding to Crises (2),
Ecology and Energy (2), and
Higher Education and Research Challenges (2).
Additional activities have included the following:
individual exchanges in both directions involving 25 travelers,
six joint planning meetings,
visits to Iran by four American Nobel Laureates, and
a three-year pilot project in Iran on food-borne disease surveillance.
In 2000, the leaderships of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine met with counterparts from the Iranian Academy of Sciences and Academy of Medical Sciences to begin to chart the initial engagement course. Leaders of these institutions met several additional times during the early 2000s to help ensure that the engagement effort was responsive to scientific interests of the two countries, was flexible to accommodate unanticipated administrative problems, and was appropriate in a volatile political environment. Throughout the decade, these leaders played important roles in ensuring continuation of the program as the navigation of projects through increasingly hostile political environments became more and more difficult.
The engagement activities were complicated to arrange. The workshops, for example, usually have taken 12 to 18 months to organize, despite efforts of the sponsoring organizations to show near-term results. More than a dozen activities were either cancelled or postponed due to administrative issues that arose during the planning process. Representatives of the two governments as well as the partner organizations in the two countries repeatedly expressed support for the program. However, obtaining visas on time, processing license applications in accordance with U.S. regulations concerning economic sanctions, and arranging for the presence at events of both key scientific leaders and younger rising researchers were always difficult. Also, obtaining financial support for engagement activities that often seemed uncertain has been challenging.
Tangible and intangible scientific benefits frequently result from the sharing of experiences among scientists who are working in similar fields but in different geographic and cultural environments. Such benefits are usually apparent to the participating scientists. Consultations during workshops, one-on-one interactions, and site visits often sensitize the participants to the strengths and weaknesses of approaches used by foreign counterparts in addressing problems of mutual interest. Such insights then help scientists to better evaluate the integrity and importance of findings that their colleagues report in published and unpublished technical manuscripts, including documents that were not even known to exist before cross-boundary discussions began. Sometimes they identify findings from investigations in one physical environment that help explain the scientific aspects of similar problems encountered in other settings. Also, joint efforts at times clarify the magnitude and importance of technical issues that should be of international concern but are not receiving adequate attention in national programs. All of these benefits have been evident, at times, in U.S.-Iranian interactions.
The importance of scientific publications that meet international standards has been a frequent discussion topic during the engagement program. Iranian counterparts are proud of their achievements in raising the profile of Iranian science through a growing number of publications in international journals formally recognized by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). They have emphasized that the number of publications co-authored by Iranians and colleagues from abroad has been on the rise and that Americans are the most frequent foreign co-authors. Joint efforts of an American and Iranian participant in the program led to the recognition by ISI of an additional Iranian journal, entitled Scientia Iranica, which covers a wide spectrum of science and technology findings by Iranian and other researchers. In short, the engagement effort has increased the awareness of Iranian participants of the importance of internationally acceptable scientific publications as one measure of the progress of Iranian science.
The National Academies have given high priority to the preparation of Proceedings of the workshops, either by National Academies Press or by collaborating institutions in the United States, Iran, and Finland. Participants in workshops have known in advance that they were expected to contribute to the Proceedings, which have underscored that the workshops are meetings for serious scientists. The published Proceedings have been particularly popular in Iran where they have reached scientists who were not able to participate in the workshops.
In short, the exchange activities, and particularly the workshops and associated visits, have helped clarify for visitors from abroad areas of scientific strengths in the two countries while highlighting relevant publications. They have identified scientific problems that seemed appropriate for further joint efforts. In a few instances, they have stimulated follow-on actions by Iranian counterparts to strengthen the approaches within Iran in addressing problems of importance to broad segments of society.
ADDRESSING ISSUES OF GLOBAL INTEREST
The most ambitious collaborative undertaking to date has been a pilot project to set the stage for larger efforts to upgrade surveillance and response systems for outbreaks of food-borne diseases, which frequently occur in Iran. Such diseases are commonly encountered in the United States and other countries as well, and the upgraded approaches now used in Iran have been taken by Iranian project participants to at least one country in Africa. Also, monitoring for food-borne problems can be important in demonstrating surveillance techniques that should be considered in coping with other types of diseases.
About 340,000 inhabitants live in the area that was covered by the pilot project northeast of Tehran. The project involved establishment of a reference laboratory, training of dozens of health-care workers, and development and implementation of upgraded protocols for collecting and analyzing stool samples while following up to identify the sources of the outbreaks. Relevant departments of the Iranian Government and a number of Iranian medical universities were very interested in the results. Representatives of the World Health Organization commended the effort.
Other activities sponsored by the National Academies that attracted considerable interest both in the United States and Iran were the workshops and associated planning activities devoted to seismic science and engineering, effective use of limited water resources, and environmental issues with both short-term and long-term impacts. Parallel interests were identified in addressing these problems in Iran and in the United States. Suggestions for areas for future cooperation were identified. The Proceedings were of particularly high quality, and Iranian officials and scientists in both countries were pleased to receive them. Of special concern during workshops and related consultations were indications that (a) a major earthquake may in time destroy bridges and buildings in Tehran that were not designed to withstand high intensity seismic shocks, (b) biodiversity will continue to
decline in the Caspian Sea basin and in other regions of Iran, and (c) dust storms that impacted Tehran in 2009 due to sand uptake far to the west of the city may become common.
Several other themes of global interest arose frequently in discussions at workshops and during exchange visits by individual scientists. They included, for example, concerns over the inadequacy of university programs that address the ethical aspects of engineering and medical science. In another area, Iran has long had a centralized distance education program that reaches over 400,000 university students; but this program and related efforts lag behind in the use of electronic technologies to facilitate such efforts. Several Iranian presentations about the Islamic concepts of science and wisdom provided important perspectives in addition to the American and Iranian presentations of evidence-based scientific findings. The intersection of science and religion was an over-arching topic on several occasions. Finally, positive views on the importance of cooperation in science often dominated the final sessions of workshops.
IRANIAN ADMIRATION OF U.S. SCIENTIFIC ACHIEVEMENTS
From the outset of the engagement effort, Iranian participants usually entered into the program with positive images of U.S. achievements in science and of the scientific strengths of U.S. universities. Some had graduated from U.S. universities decades earlier; others had relatives and friends in the United States; and still others were frequent viewers of western television programs and/or regular readers of western publications that reported U.S. technological achievements. Those who traveled to the United States usually indicated to the National Academies that their positive views were reinforced during the visits. Those who served as hosts for Americans in Iran seemed to be proud to be in the company of U.S. scientists from well-known institutions. Indeed, the capabilities of the universities and research centers that were the home bases of American participants were usually well known to Iranian hosts.
The enthusiasm with which Iranian scientific colleagues received U.S. Nobel Laureates traveling to Iran was truly astounding. The fact that the Laureates would take time to visit Iran was deeply appreciated by their hosts and by dozens of students with whom they had private discussions as well as by hundreds of additional scientists and students who attended their lectures. One Laureate received an honorary degree. Another Laureate was measured for a sculptured bust, which now adorns the garden of the Techno-park in
Pardis, Iran. Two were received by a leading Grand Ayatollah of the country, and all were greeted by senior Iranian officials as honored guests.
The Iranian press was quick to report the arrival of Nobel Laureates and other leading American scientists in Iran. Government officials offered generous praise in their public greetings of the visitors as well as in private meetings. Academic colleagues were eager to engage in discussions of scientific achievements. Students repeatedly asked how it felt to be a famous scientist. The flags, posters, and programs prepared for the visits by the Nobel Laureates quickly became collector items in Iran.
During the first decade of engagement of the National Academies, the Department of State consistently encouraged the development of people-to-people programs by U.S. non-governmental organizations in many fields, including science. Department representatives frequently stated that the long-term payoff from such engagement can contribute significantly to general U.S. foreign policy objectives of positive international relationships and mutual understanding. Representatives of the National Academies often meet with senior U.S. officials to help ensure that the engagement activities complement other exchange programs. The view of the government officials is always the same. “We are eager to learn about your experiences with Iranians.”
In parallel, for many years U.S. officials have strongly advocated publicly that Iran adopt and adhere to democratic principles in the evolution of its governing structure. In recent years, the U.S. Government has financed efforts by non-governmental organizations based in the United States and elsewhere to assist in this respect. Some Iranian officials are suspicious of such activities, and this financial investment by the U.S. Government casts an ominous shadow over all types of engagement, including science engagement.
In a highly publicized action in 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice successfully sought a special Congressional appropriation of $75 million to finance expanded radio and television broadcasts into Iran and to initiate new types of democracy-support and public diplomacy activities. These funds were promptly tagged as “regime-change” funds by the media in both countries and then by the Iranian Government. The National Academies have not accepted such funding for travel to Iran, although some Iranian security services may consider any type of U.S. government interest in activi-
ties in Iran as regime-change activities. Indeed, great care is needed as to how government funding is used lest it set back rather than promote achievement of both democracy-promotion and science engagement objectives.
Exemplifying the intersections of the roads to achieving different objectives, in December 2008, a staff member of the National Academies was detained and interrogated in a Tehran hotel for nine hours over a period of three days by Iranian security officials. He was falsely accused of attempting to foment a velvet revolution in collaboration with the U.S. Government. The officials stated that Iran was not interested in scientific exchanges; and therefore he should cease his activities in the country. While he was not arrested and was allowed to leave the country on schedule, this unwarranted behavior by the Iranian security services has raised serious questions about further cooperative programs in the country. As of mid-2010, the National Academies were awaiting assurances from appropriate authorities in Iran that such an incident would not be repeated. Until such assurances are provided, activities within Iran have been suspended while engagement activities are pursued in the United States and third countries.
Three years earlier, without advance notification, the Department of Homeland Security had revoked valid U.S. visas for about 40 Iranian professionals who had been invited to attend a celebration in California for alumni of Sharif University of Technology. Upon their arrival at the ports of entry in California, they were ordered to leave the country immediately. Some of the scientists who arrived at the San Francisco airport in the middle of the night were detained in nearby jails. There apparently were no accommodations to keep them at the airport awaiting their departure flights that would take them back to Tehran or to other destinations outside U.S. borders.
A direct relationship between the two incidents seems highly unlikely. However, both of these incidents underscore the importance of the governments of the two countries formally endorsing scientific exchanges as an important activity that will benefit both countries. In the absence of such public endorsement, the likelihood that engagement efforts of the National Academies, and probably other U.S. organizations, will increase is not high.
THE WAY FORWARD
The future direction of the program of engagement carried out by the National Academies is uncertain. At the level of individual scientists, there are conflicting views as to whether scientific exchange programs can be
effectively carried out without crippling interference by the security services in the two countries, given the current political environment. Nevertheless, most well informed scientists in the two countries with whom the National Academies have contacts favor continuation of engagement activities to the extent possible. They recognize that there may be personal risks, but they also believe there will be significant scientific and other rewards from engagement.
The scientific areas that might be considered for future cooperation are relatively easy to identify. Building on past cooperative endeavors should be a high priority in developing the next phase of cooperation. Also, future activities should more aggressively pursue the goal of self-sustainability of cooperative efforts. Self-sustainability means that following an event, or a series of events, organized by the National Academies, the participating scientists, with the support of their institutions, continue to pursue their personal interests in cooperative activities without indefinite dependence on the National Academies as the organizer of such activities.
Against the background of uncertainty as to whether and when to move forward and a rich agenda of topics that can be profitably pursued cooperatively, the National Academies are setting the stage for the next phase of engagement. Plans are under way to hold additional workshops in the United States and third countries. The Department of State is being encouraged to seek assurances from the Iranian government that harassment of American scientists visiting Iran will cease. Also, other ambitious pilot projects in the environmental field are being considered.
Iran’s size, its geostrategic location, and its abundant energy resources ensure that the country will continue to be a very important political player in the region. But the Iranian Government is under both internal and external pressures concerning its policies, and an increasingly outspoken Iranian population is divided. Thus, there is a long road to agreement in Tehran as to the nation’s future political direction, both internally and internationally.
Meanwhile, Iranian scientists sometimes say that science was in the DNA of the Persians and that the current generation of university students and young professionals has inherited a passion for science. The large number of well-trained scientists and doctors in Iran help document this conviction. The political neutrality of science can steer talented segments of the Iranian youth in their search for personal satisfaction and professional recognition in research laboratories for contributions to meeting national needs, even if jobs are scarce and salaries are low.
The technical and political benefits of science engagement can be rewarding for both countries. Science that improves economic and social conditions for the general population can offer rallying points for bringing parties together nationally and internationally without the need for major political compromises by any party. Indeed, science cooperation is one of the few options for bridging diverse interests of Iran and the United States and in establishing gateways to mutual understanding and to international security of global importance.