The National Academies began their effort to engage Iranian institutions in scientific cooperation in 1999. The first formal interacademy meeting was held when Iranian academy leaders visited the National Academies in 2000. This initiative was undertaken against a background of occasional interactions between leading American and Iranian scientists at a variety of international forums. These forums included meetings sponsored by UNESCO, the World Health Organization, other U.N. organizations, and a number of nongovernmental organizations affiliated with the International Council of Scientific Unions.
As to the scientific strengths of Iran, which were to be critical components of engagement, the National Academies were aware of the successes of Iranian science and mathematics students in international competitions at both the university and secondary school levels. Also, reports of impressive achievements of Iranian graduate students, who had received their undergraduate training in Iran, at some of the best universities in the United States were frequent. Thus, expectations were high that engagement would be scientifically rewarding for the American as well as the Iranian participants even though the National Academies had few details on Iranian capabilities.
At the same time, great uncertainties concerning how to establish meaningful cooperative activities that would draw on Iran’s strengths dominated discussions in Washington. In many ways the Iranian scientific community had been isolated from the mainstream of international science for a number of years. A well-known, but dormant, tradition of international
scientific outreach by Iran’s strongest institutions during the 1970s needed to be revived.
The National Academies searched for opportunities for discussions, through intermediaries and directly with Iranian counterparts, which would clarify the scientific interests in non-sensitive areas of both the National Academies and their potential partners. Non-sensitive meant that any activity would be carried out within the legal and policy boundaries for interactions that had been established by the U.S. Government, and particularly the limitations imposed by export control regulations and economic sanctions. It quickly became clear that opportunities were available or could be developed for initial discussions about mutually beneficial bilateral engagement. Multilateral meetings provided good venues for such side discussions, but direct bilateral approaches that were not distracted by a focus on multilateral activities became preferable.
During the period of initiating engagement, a limited number of other U.S. institutions were cooperating in scientific endeavors with Iranian counterparts. The principal mechanisms included (a) university-to-university arrangements that usually involved student exchanges, (b) occasional U.S.-Iran workshops and other events in the United States and in Iran arranged by Iranian-American organizations, (c) attendance by a few American specialists at scientific conferences in Iran where contacts could be made with a variety of potential collaborators, and (d) acceptance by a limited number of Iranian scientists of invitations from American colleagues to participate in conferences in the United States. The experiences from these activities and from related efforts of several professional societies in the United States were helpful in providing guidance for the National Academies concerning how best to initiate and structure engagement activities and how to sustain such activities.
Despite concerns within the U.S. Government over Iran’s record on human rights, support of terrorist organizations by the Iranian Government, and Iran’s quest to acquire nuclear weapons, the Department of State supported the outreach efforts of American institutions to Iranian organizations in a number of fields, including science. Key U.S. government leaders had consistently argued that building long-term relationships with Iran should proceed in parallel with resolving immediate problems separating the two countries. This governmental support has been critical in the decisions of the National Academies to have a program that involved activities in both countries. Numerous meetings have been held with U.S. officials to help ensure that the program of the National Academies would
complement and not complicate other engagement activities of interest to the U.S. Government.
COMMON INTERESTS IN HALTING DEGRADATION OF THE CASPIAN SEA
In the spring of 1999, a staff member of the National Academies accepted an invitation from the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) in Tehran to make a presentation at a conference at the institute on developments in the Caspian Sea region.1 By coincidence, at about the same time, the National Academies and the Russian Academy of Sciences decided to hold a workshop on the ecology of the Caspian Sea in Moscow in December 1999. The two academies planned to include Iranian specialists in the workshop if possible, as well as specialists from other littoral nations that bordered the sea and from the United States. Thus, the staff visit to Tehran provided an opportunity for a meeting with the leaders of the Iranian Academy of Sciences and for extending to them an invitation for Iranian participation in the Moscow workshop. The Iranian Academy promptly accepted the invitation.
Three Iranian scientists attended the workshop in December 1999. Each presented a paper, and they actively participated in the discussions and in the informal events associated with the workshop. Most importantly, they expressed a strong desire to continue and expand interactions with American colleagues, which were not possible through other channels.2
Initially, the American participants were skeptical that the workshop would break new ground. The Global Environmental Facility (GEF) of the World Bank had already initiated a major assessment of the environmental problems that were rapidly degrading the Caspian Sea. In particular, the GEF gave high priority to assessing the increased pollution of the sea and the decline in fishing stocks. At the Moscow meeting there was some repetition of previous GEF discussions. However, the workshop focused more sharply on scientific aspects of the degradation of the sea and the seemingly irreversible ecological damage. The consensus among participants in Moscow was that the workshop was very useful not only in highlighting the need to slow down the rapid decline in the quality of the water and the seabed but also in giving additional scientists seats at the table of international ecological discussions directly related to their research activities.
In setting the stage for development of bilateral cooperation between the National Academies and the Iranian Academy of Sciences, the staff visit to Tehran and the Moscow workshop were important early steps that opened
scientific communication. This communication has continued without interruption until the present. The many discussions at workshops subsequently organized by the academies of the two countries have built on these initial activities, which demonstrated that cooperation was of interest to scientists in the two countries. The Iranian Academy of Sciences was particularly impressed by the rapid publication and distribution of the Proceedings of the Moscow workshop in both English and Russian and by the interest in Iran in the Proceedings.
VISITS OF ACADEMY LEADERS IN BOTH DIRECTIONS
Meanwhile, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) had sent a small team of scientists to Iran in early 1999 to discuss possibilities for bilateral scientific cooperation. The FAS focused the team’s attention on the activities of the Iranian Academy of Sciences, with additional interest in the role of the Academy of Medical Sciences. The FAS invited the leaderships of the two academies to Washington in the fall of 1999, and then the FAS turned to the National Academies to assist in hosting the visitors. During the visit to Iran of the member of the staff of the National Academies discussed above, he encouraged Iranian acceptance of the FAS invitation. In particular, he discussed the arrangements that would be made in Washington for receiving the visitors at the National Academies.
The Iranian visitors arrived in Washington in September 1999. The group included the President of the Iranian Academy of Sciences and the Vice President of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Very general discussions were held at the National Academies about the importance of international cooperation to advance science, engineering, and medicine. All participants embraced the concept of a program involving bilateral exchanges of scientists who were working in fields of mutual interest. As the next step, the Iranian leaders extended an invitation for a visit by the leadership of the National Academies to Iran.
In September 2000, a delegation of leaders of the National Academies, including the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering and the Foreign Secretary of the Institute of Medicine, traveled to Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz. Their visit was well publicized in Iran, and the reception was cordial everywhere. The substantive discussions in Tehran and Esfahan provided interesting insights into the roles of universities and research institutions in Iran. Similarities with approaches in the United States were striking.
In Tehran, considerable emphasis was given to the seismic situation and concerns over the likelihood of a catastrophic earthquake that could cause great damage in Tehran. A second topic of interest was protection of the environment, and particularly better control of air pollution problems in Tehran and stronger measures for protecting the marshes along the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. The Minister for Environment, her staff, and their associates devoted considerable time to briefing the delegation members on these and other issues. The presence of Nobel Laureate F. Sherwood Rowland on the delegation attracted considerable admiration from the Iranian scientific community. His meetings with faculty members and graduate students who were focused on the details of ozone depletion were of particular interest to the Iranian hosts.
In Esfahan, following meetings at two universities, the delegation was introduced to the realities of developing democratic governance in the city. A meeting with the first elected Mayor and first City Council, which included as members a number of university professors and medical doctors, became a lengthy session on how to manage and distribute an annual city budget of $40 million. Utility services, educational opportunities, and trash collection were among the topics on the lists of concern of the council members. The meeting included comments on the desirability of a U.S.-Iran sister-cities program, which could readily involve universities and medical facilities. While Esfahan was already twinned with several other sister cities in Europe, none of these cross-boundary programs had amounted to a serious effort by the European cities to engage with Iranian counterparts, according to the Iranian hosts. Also, during the discussions, the increasing influence of the quasi-independent media in Iran was underscored by comments of a journalist who had just lost his credentials for expressing opposition to policies in Tehran but who was in the process of receiving new credentials with a different news service.
During the visit, the academies from both countries developed a joint list of topics for focusing future cooperation. Thirteen topics, which are set forth in Appendix A, were identified as appropriate for workshops. In subsequent years, joint workshops addressed seven of the topics. Exchange visits involving young investigators were also considered, but these did not materialize as the academies in both countries relied on more seasoned specialists to participate in joint activities. While visits of individual senior scientists were not singled out as a priority, they were discussed and later became an important component of the cooperation. Finally, the academies agreed to work to reduce barriers to scientific cooperation, with a particular
focus on visa problems. The academies have been struggling with reducing barriers ever since.
The participation in the delegation of the director of the human rights program of the National Academies seemed to raise considerable interest among some Iranian participants. Discussions with scholars, human rights advocates, and an interested Iranian journalist were quickly scheduled. The hope on the part of the National Academies was that these contacts would lead to more active involvement of the leaders of the Iranian academies in the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies. This hope did not materialize to the extent anticipated. However, a member of the Iranian Academy of Sciences attended the next meeting of the Network and the director of the jointly sponsored United Nations and Tehran University Center for Human Rights gave a lecture at the meeting.
More than a dozen well-known Iranian government and clerical personalities, in addition to Iranian scientific counterparts, attended an elaborate evening reception for the visitors. These Iranian leaders were ready to discuss, at least briefly, political and economic developments that intersected with international science. While the engagement activities that eventually developed did not focus on political and economic issues, such issues were often considered at workshops and in less formal settings.
Finally, throughout the visit, leading Iranian scholars in Islamic studies participated in the discussions. They were instrumental in placing on the agenda for future consideration the topics of ethics and religion as they related to science. Indeed, the first joint workshop that was held after the visit was on science and ethics and is discussed in Chapter 3.
PREPARATIONS FOR IMPLEMENTING AGREED PROGRAMS
With agreement having been reached on a framework for collaboration, the challenge was to organize and carry out specific activities. On the U.S. side, commitments were made by interested scientists, funding was secured, and OFAC licenses for the workshops were obtained, usually with delays of 4-6 months. The Iranian side presumably had parallel challenges. More than one year was required to put in place the organizational machinery for collaboration. Finally in 2002, professional interactions began, with four workshops held in that year as discussed in Chapter 3.
Chapters 3 and 4 describe the most important cooperative activities that have taken place through the end of 2009. Organizing events involving Iranians has not been easy; and for every event that has been held, at
least one event that was proposed by one side and accepted by the other has not materialized. Thus, both sides considered that the holding of four workshops in a single year was indeed a monumental achievement, and the initial workshops sent an excellent signal to scientists in both countries that serious collaboration had begun.