During the late 1990s, the National Academies began exploring the opportunities for facilitating non-governmental engagement between American and Iranian scientists, engineers, and health professionals (herein referred to as “scientists,” with science, engineering, and/or health referred to as “science”). The first formal step toward engagement was a visit to the National Academies by leaders of the Iranian Academy of Sciences and Academy of Medical Sciences in 2000. By 2002, significant engagement activities under the auspices of the National Academies had become a reality. Joint activities sponsored by the National Academies and a variety of Iranian partner organizations continued through 2009, with occasional short-term interruptions due both to unanticipated political concerns (e.g., Iranian objections to U.S. fingerprinting requirements at ports of entry, U.S. Department of Treasury denials of licenses required for selected activities) and to administrative difficulties (e.g., delays in processing visa approvals in both capitals, unanticipated competing commitments of key U.S. or Iranian participants in projects).
As discussed in Chapter 5, the National Academies intend to continue the program of joint workshops and to develop other types of engagement activities as well, depending on the political situation. The scientific themes of mutual interest as well as the feasibility of implementation have been under discussion in Washington and Tehran. At the same time, the future of the U.S.-Iranian governmental relationship that influences science engagement activities remain uncertain.
STATEMENT OF TASK
This report responds to the following Statement of Task, which was prepared by the leadership of the National Research Council in December 2009:
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.
Thus, the report looks both to the past and to the future. Of special interest are activities that can be undertaken to strengthen and build on the embryonic foundation for sustained scientific cooperation that began to form during the past decade. The evolution and characteristics of that foundation are significant themes of this report.
BROAD INTERESTS IN SCIENCE ENGAGEMENT
This report describes the most important components of the program of the National Academies to promote U.S.-Iran science engagement during the first decade of the 21st century. This engagement has been based primarily on the personal scientific interests of the U.S. and Iranian participants. More than 500 scientists from more than 80 institutions in the two countries have actively contributed to the jointly organized workshops and other types of exchanges.
However, these core participants are but a small portion of the scientists and others in the two countries who have been interested in the program. More than 500 other scientists from Iran and the United States have also met with exchange visitors. These other scientists have consulted with visiting specialists after guest lectures, during tours of educational and research facilities, and at receptions and other hospitality events. The overall number of scientists and students from the two countries who have attended guest lectures in person or via the Internet has been in the thousands. Also in Iran, hundreds of copies of reports of the activities—particularly Proceedings of
workshops published by the National Academies—have been provided to partner organizations for circulation to a number of interested readers.
Of special importance, government officials in Washington and Tehran endorsed in principle, and sometimes in detail, each of the joint activities before they were undertaken. They have included Secretaries of State and Ministers of Foreign Affairs who were briefed on the overall program and on near-term events. Reportedly, the Supreme Leader and two successive Presidents of Iran have taken a personal interest in some aspects of the program. More junior officials in both countries have had responsibilities for approvals of visas. Others have been involved in ensuring compliance of exchanges with regulations in the two countries.
A few influential political and scientific leaders in both countries have been outspoken advocates of the program. Some supporters have had long-standing interests in encouraging cross-border approaches for using scientific achievements to help address difficult economic, environmental, health, and other challenges of both local and international importance. Others have become newly minted advocates of exchanges based on their initial rewarding experiences with colleagues from a distant country. A number of Iranian-American supporters who have strong roots in both countries have long urged expanded science engagement. A few scientists in both countries have expressed their desire to the National Academies to participate in engagement efforts in order to contribute to positive changes in the U.S.-Iranian political relationship.1
THE SCIENTIFIC-POLITICAL NEXUS
The primary objective of the National Academies in the engagement effort has been to achieve scientific benefits for both sides and for the international scientific community more broadly. The activities have been designed to enable scientists from the two countries to share the benefits that can be derived from cooperation in science education, research, and applications. At the same time, the National Academies and their Iranian partners have attempted to keep the fields of cooperation outside the boundaries of national security interests, lest security sensitivities raise concerns about the overall purpose of the program and thereby make cooperation more difficult. Of course, at times these boundaries have been uncertain. Nevertheless, participants from both countries seem to have been reasonably confident that the activities have remained within the province of peaceful and appropriate uses of science.
While the focus of the National Academies has been on the scientific aspects of engagement, 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. At times, the linkages between non-governmental engagement and the bilateral political relationship have been quite obvious. They have been most evident during the process of gaining various approvals for specific activities when approvals have been necessary or desirable in Tehran and in Washington.
This political-scientific nexus will probably gain even greater importance in the near term as major steps toward political rapprochement continue to elude the two governments and as all aspects of the bilateral relationship are increasingly scrutinized in the two capitals. Of particular concern for the future of exchange activities are (a) expansion of the scope of U.N. and U.S. economic sanctions, and (b) continuation of harsh measures by the Iranian Government to control dissension following the 2009 election. Such developments may cause the National Academies and partner organizations in Iran to consider modifying or even scrapping some approaches to engagement that they have used successfully in the past (e.g., participation by exchange visitors in unscheduled private dinners without informing well in advance the formal hosts for the visits, who may have security-imposed requirements concerning ad hoc activities).
The National Academies and partner organizations in Iran have usually been optimistic that bilateral cooperation in science contributes to the evolution of more favorable environments in both countries for reaching agreement on bilateral or multilateral issues that are politically sensitive. To this end, plans for cooperation and on-the-ground activities involving both prominent scientists and academic leaders from the two countries, and at times younger scientists, have usually received favorable assessments within the governments of Iran and the United States, despite political disputes between the governments that dominated the newspaper headlines at the same time. In any event, hopes have been high among many scientists and some important officials in the two countries that the engagement effort will continue despite the rough waters ahead.
SCOPE OF REPORT
As previously noted, the report focuses primarily on specific science engagement activities. (See Table 1-1.) The report does not attempt to analyze (a) the evolution of the broader political, economic, and security
TABLE 1-1 Time Lines for Engagement Activities
Meetings between Academy Leaders from Both Countries
Tourtour, France (2003)
Ecology of Caspian Sea, Moscow (1999)a (preliminary workshop)
Experiences and Challenges of Science and Ethics, Bellagio, Italy (2002)
Higher Education, Tehran (2002)
Ecology of Caspian Sea, Ramsar, Iran (2002)
Water Conservation, Reuse, and Recycling, Tunis (2002)
Food Safety and Food-borne Disease Surveillance Systems, Tehran (2004)
Drought Forecasting and Management, Tehran (2005)
Roots and Routes of Democracy and Extremism, Haikko, Finland (2005)a
Science, Technology, and Future Development of Societies, Tourtour (2006)a
Research and Higher Education, Tehran (2007)
Science as a Gateway to Understanding, Tehran (2007)a
Food-borne Diseases and Public Health, Washington (2007)b
Energy Challenges, Tehran (2008)
Water Management, Irvine, California (2008)b
Seismic Performance of Adobe and Masonry Structures, Tehran (2008)
Improving Earthquake Mitigation through Innovation in Seismic Science (2009)b
Managing Environmental Crises, Haikko (2009)a
Science, Ethics, and Appropriate Uses of Technology, Tourtour (2009)a
Visits to Iran by Nobel Laureates
F. Sherwood Rowland, Chemistry (2000)
Joseph Taylor, Physics (2007)
Thomas Shelling, Economics (2008)
Burton Richter, Physics (2008)
Fields of Individual Travelers
Science and Religion
Earthquake Science and Engineering
Joint Planning Meetings
Earthquake Science and Engineering, Tehran (2002)
Food Safety, Education, and Energy, Tourtour (2003)
Food-borne Diseases, Tehran (2005)
Food-borne Diseases, Tehran (2006)
Cancer, Houston (2006)
To the United States
Science and Religion
Annually 1999 to 2008 (All in Iran)
a Participants from Third Countries.
b Component of International Visitor Program.
relationship between the United States and Iran, or (b) internal unrest within Iran, including allegations in Iran that the United States has been using exchanges as one means of creating turmoil within Iran and thereby help foment a velvet revolution. Of course the bilateral relationship, which has been on a downward slide, and the volatile political situation within Iran have influenced engagement activities.
A number of U.S. policies are critically important for science engagement programs. For example, restrictions on exports, limitations on financial transactions involving Iranians and Iranian institutions, and requirements for licenses from the Department of Treasury for some activities were not designed, at least in the first instance, to control science engagement. But their reach now extends to encompass some types of such cooperation. These and other important policies are briefly discussed, particularly in Chapter 1. However, the report leaves to others the detailed analyses of political and security challenges within and between the countries during the first decade of the 21st century.2
Other U.S. nongovernmental organizations have also supported science-related U.S.-Iran cooperative activities. Inventories of such programs have not been undertaken and made public—at least in the United States—since some organizations prefer not to publicize their activities. The most extensive U.S.-Iranian science-related programs in recent years have probably been those organized (a) by Iranian-American scientists individually, (b) by professional associations of Iranian-Americans, (c) by private firms interested in trade, (d) by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which have consistently supported both Iranian researchers at NIH for one or two years and American scientists working with collaborators in Iran on projects of considerable scientific interest, and (e) by U.S. universities, with Iranian students and Iranian-American faculty members playing prominent roles.3 Iranian-American scientists have also played significant roles in the activities of the National Academies.
In recent years important science-related events have been supported in Iran by a number of international organizations (e.g., UNDP, UNESCO, WHO, FAO, UNCTAD, UNIDO), development banks (e.g., the World Bank), and regional organizations (e.g., Economic Cooperation Organization based in Tehran). These events, together with reports by Iranian and foreign journalists, have been helpful in clarifying for the international community some of the science-related development challenges in Iran.4 They have provided information within Iran and abroad on the strengths and weaknesses of organizational approaches of Iranian science and on specific technical
issues. They have documented the priorities within science that have been established by the Iranian Government. Also, they have highlighted the long and complex road ahead that could provide continuing access of Iran to international technological developments and to worldwide experiences in using these developments for economic and social progress. (See Appendices H and I for indicators of the extent of the Iranian research establishment and the enrollment in science in universities.) The international conferences have provided opportunities for American and other foreign specialists to travel to Iran and, while there, to become acquainted with developments at a few research, engineering, and medical facilities. The report draws on observations by some of the participants in these activities.
Finally, each year Iranian government and academic institutions also organize a number of large conferences, primarily in Tehran, that include discussions of scientific issues of international importance. Occasionally American specialists participate in these conferences, particularly Iranian-Americans. The National Academies have encouraged, but not supported financially, attendance at these gatherings, which attract many Iranian officials and international specialists in selected fields. They usually involve side visits to important institutions. Such opportunities are briefly discussed in Chapter 5.
AUDIENCE FOR THIS REPORT
A number of American and Iranian researchers, scientific leaders, and university administrators may be interested in this report. It highlights the types of cooperative activities and topical areas that have been of mutual interest in recent years. It provides insights as to the opportunities and pitfalls in organizing exchange activities.
U.S. government officials are also likely to be interested since some activities that are discussed overlap with U.S. government priorities for engagement. As of mid-2010, the U.S. government’s interest in having multiple channels of communication with various segments of Iranian societies through exchanges remained strong. If activities are expanded when the post-election environment in Tehran becomes more favorable for exchange programs, the commentaries on the activities in this report should be helpful in developing future programs.
Finally, the report may be of interest to advocates of science diplomacy, foreign policy specialists, and science historians. With a few exceptions, the readily accessible English-language literature concerning the long history of
U.S.-Iranian cooperation in science is limited. Among the previous documentation are brief discussions of training of Iranian nuclear engineers in the United States, references to U.S. foreign assistance several decades ago, and reports of narrowly focused joint activities related to the Bam earthquake, dwindling biological resources of the Caspian Sea, archeological treasures of Persia, and medical achievements of Persia and then Iran. This report complements the writings of others with an up-to-date window for viewing some previously undocumented aspects of science-related developments in Iran, which have formed the basis for bilateral cooperation.
1. For strong endorsement of the concept of science diplomacy, see: Partnership for a Secure America, “Science Diplomacy Is Crucial to U.S. Foreign Policy,” Washington, D.C., February 2010, www.psaonline.org/article.php?id=620.
2. Many books and reports have provided useful background concerning developments in Iran. They include, for example: Wilfried Buchta, Who Rules Iran? The Structure of Power in the Islamic Republic, Washington Institute for Near East Policy (in collaboration with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung), Washington, D.C., 2000; Daniel Doktori et al., Iran, Journal of International Affairs, Columbia University, New York, Spring/Summer 2007; Keith Crane, Rollie Lal, and Jeffrey Martini, Iran’s Political, Demographic, and Economic Vulnerabilities, The Rand Corporation, 2008; Middle East Institute, The Iran Revolution at 30, Institute Viewpoints, Washington, D.C., 2009; David E. Thaler et al, Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamics, The Rand Cooperation, 2010.
3. For more than a decade, the Iranian Academic Association, established in 1995 and headquartered in New York, was a particularly active organization in organizing workshops in Iran and the United States, facilitating student exchanges, and assisting with visas. Its activities overlapped in a number of ways the interests of the National Academies in fields such as traffic accidents, water resources and agriculture, and biomedical engineering. www.IranianAA.org.
4. For an insightful assessment of important components of the science and technology infrastructure of Iran, see United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Iran: Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy Review, United Nations, New York and Geneva, 2005. An important conclusion in this report was that Iran’s main concerns in science and technology were the following: (a) how to attract new entrepreneurs, (b) how to promote an innovation culture, and (c) what universities could do to promote innovation and entrepreneurship (Reference: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Trade and Development Board, TD/B/COM.2/69, GE.06-50005, January 5, 2006).