Exchanges, Planning Meetings, and Special Events
The workshop program described in Chapter 3 dominated the cooperative activities sponsored by the National Academies throughout the first decade of engagement. A heavy emphasis on workshops had been planned for the first few years—a period of becoming acquainted. The concept was as follows: After the introductions provided by the workshops, some of the individual scientists from both sides would then follow up their new contacts with colleagues who had similar interests and would continue engagement activities on their own.
But this pattern did not develop. It simply became too complicated for individual scientists to navigate on their own through the political, legal, and financial obstacles to cooperation that have characterized U.S.-Iranian relations. Even the initial workshops took 12-18 months to organize despite strong efforts of the academies in the two countries to show results of the program at an early stage. Also, few funding organizations were prepared to invest in risky collaborations that might never be realized.
It was anticipated that a broadly based program of workshops, exchanges, and other activities—bearing the imprimaturs of the academies in the two countries—would unfold. However, such a program that balanced different themes, different participating institutions, and different age groups of participants, as well as the use of different exchange mechanisms, did not occur. The difficulties in arranging events were greater than anticipated. Trying to conform to a pre-conceived plan for different approaches was simply not possible although the academies often referred to the priority themes
agreed to in 2000 when different cooperative activities were considered. Further complicating the character of the program was an early decision by the National Academies to engage with a number of organizations in Iran in addition to the academies, since the academies were still relatively young organizations.
The National Academies decided to promote activities on an ad hoc basis as opportunities appeared, without relying on a well developed implementation plan. Was an appropriate Iranian organization interested in moving forward with an activity? Was an appropriate American scientist prepared to co-chair the activity? Would there be a licensing issue? Were related activities scheduled in the Middle East that would reduce international travel for specialists interested in participating in such activities as well as traveling to Iran?
Of course, the National Academies maintained the position that the topic of any activity would have to be of interest to U.S. scientists if they were to participate with enthusiasm. The policy of science first and political bridge-building benefits second was the mantra. As discussed in Chapter 5, this approach seemed to pay off.
All the while, there were frequent adjustments of plans up to the very dates of scheduled events. Welcome news came in small parcels such as: The last visa approval notification has just arrived, and we can leave on schedule. The visitors have finally cleared customs in New York, and they will make their connecting flight. Permission has been given in Washington for the visitors to meet with U.S. government scientists.
Thus, flexibility was essential to guide the program throughout the decade.
The National Academies originally planned for individual exchanges to become a major component of the program. But most American scientists were not eager to travel to Iran alone. Usually, travelers would go to Iran in groups of two or more. Also, they realized that there were few, if any, funding sources for travel to Iran or follow-on activities, thereby dampening enthusiasm for developing unsustainable partnerships.
Many travelers preferred to participate in workshops organized by the National Academies and then add side visits to the proposed workshop itineraries. This approach was followed in most cases. Individual visits by Americans not linked to workshops became the exception rather than the rule.
Meanwhile, Iranian scientists seemed more comfortable coming to the United States to visit relatives or friends rather than to explore new scientific challenges. Efforts were made to combine the two purposes of their travel. This approach was usually successful.
Nevertheless, there were a few individual exchanges in each direction not linked to workshops, conferences, or family visits. About a dozen Americans traveled to Iran, and a comparable number of Iranians visited the United States. In some cases, the activities supported by the National Academies were add-on activities to visits already planned by the travelers and financially supported in part or entirely by other organizations. But in a few cases, the visitors to Iran were traveling only under the auspices of the National Academies; and the visitors to the United States were traveling in response to invitations and visa support provided by the National Academies.
The topics for the visits varied. In the medical area they included cancer research and drug addiction. In basic science, they focused on physics. Several visitors were interested in science policy—a relatively new discipline in Iran. The theme of science and ethics attracted some visitors while others were interested in science and religion. Several travelers to Iran in geosciences received particularly warm receptions. All visitors in both directions had a latent interest in international relations, and particularly in the U.S.-Iran political relationship as it affected scientific cooperation.
The National Academies received positive reports from almost all of the participants in individual exchanges. The participants thought the experiences were useful. They considered the contacts that had been established, were important. They sometimes added that the official views in Tehran on their visits were believed to be positive. Still, the National Academies seldom received reports of follow-on visits.
After the initial four workshops in 2002, the leaders of the academies in the two countries decided that a review of these interactions together with discussions of future directions would be desirable. Leading scientists selected by the academies met in France in June 2003 to focus on future directions, recognizing the importance of flexibility in adjusting priorities as the program evolved. The academies selected three broad topics as the focus of this early planning effort—food security/food safety, energy, and education and values. These themes were on the agendas of many organizations throughout the world as well. An informal report of the meeting was well
received by scientific leaders in Tehran and Washington and in time led to workshops and other activities in each of the three areas.1
A less extensive inter-academy review of the engagement program was held in Washington, D.C., in June 2005 on the occasion of the visit to Washington on other business by the President of the Iranian Academy of Sciences. Past activities were discussed, and new topics for cooperation were put on the table as areas of particular interest to the two academies. The importance of cooperation in basic science—physics, chemistry, and biology—was stressed. However, these topics were subsequently perceived by some government officials in the two countries as too closely related to national security interests to pursue. During an inter-academy meeting, the president of the National Academy of Engineering was awarded a medal by the Iranian Academy of Sciences for his contributions to enhancing U.S.-Iranian cooperation in science and technology.
In November 2007, senior leaders of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences went to Iran to engage in more detailed discussions with colleagues concerning future directions for engagement. The visit included participation of the visitors in two workshops described in Chapter 3 (Science as a Gateway to Understanding and Research at Higher Education Institutions). The visitors also met with senior officials of the Iranian Government, leading clerics of Iran, and the scientific leadership of the country. Nobel Laureate Joseph Taylor (physics, Princeton University) was included in the group and received the tumultuous reception described below. Another highlight of the visit was a dinner hosted by the Iranian Vice President for Science that included about 50 senior government officials with responsibilities in the field of science and technology and other leading scientists of the country. Appendix C includes the press release on the purpose and results of the visit by the group.
The final planning consultations of the decade were held in Tehran in December 2008 when the president of the Institute of Medicine discussed common interests in medicine with leading medical scientists of the country. As indicated in Appendix D, there was no shortage of topics of mutual interest that seemed well suited as focal points for future interactions. The visit included discussions of recent advances in the medical sciences held at the Academy of Medical Sciences, Shaheed Beheshti Medical University, and Tehran University of Medical Sciences. At the Institute of Tuberculosis and Lung Diseases, the visitors participated in a detailed discussion, supplemented with careful examination of a relevant x-ray, of the basis for a decision as to whether or not to perform a dangerous operation. There
was complete agreement among the visitors and the Iranian surgeons on an appropriate course of action.
In addition to overview discussions of opportunities and results of initial cooperative activities as described above, a continuing dialogue on the importance of cooperation in earthquake science and engineering was carried out by specialists from the two countries for almost the entire decade. Visits by American scientists to Iran and by Iranians to the United States, as well as meetings on the fringes of international conferences in other countries, provided opportunities to discuss common seismic interests. They reviewed experiences following the Bam earthquake, needed measures to prepare for a serious earthquake in Tehran, and the possibility of bringing together earthquake specialists representing the city of Tehran with counterparts in San Francisco and Los Angeles. These discussions led directly to the two workshops on seismic issues discussed in Chapter 3.
VISITS TO IRAN BY NOBEL LAUREATES
As noted in Chapter 1, Nobel Laureate F. Sherwood Rowland participated in the first visit of a delegation of the National Academies to Iran in 2000. He received a highly publicized welcome. His expertise concerning both ozone depletion and urban air pollution seemed to energize young environmental activists in Tehran. His interactions set a very positive tone for future visits by other leading American scientists.
In November 2007, Joseph Taylor stirred considerable enthusiasm for physics during his brief visit. Greeted by a flurry of posters announcing his arrival, he delivered a lecture on pulsars at Sharif University of Technology that was received by hundreds of faculty members and students jammed into an auditorium, hallways, and overflow rooms. The lecture was also transmitted via the Internet to other Iranian universities where physicists and their students had gathered. During the visit, Taylor was “measured” for sculpting of a bust, which now adorns the garden at Pardis Techno-Park of the university.
Two months later, Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling (economics, University of Maryland) traveled to Iran at the invitation of Sharif University of Technology where he also presented a lecture. In addition, he received an honorary doctoral degree. His visit was widely reported in the Tehran newspapers. He traveled to Shiraz where he was warmly received by one of the leading religious figures of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Haeiri. Schelling pointed out the close connection of the University of Maryland with many
prominent Iranians, and he was strongly encouraged by his hosts to return to Iran. While his visit was not organized by the National Academies, the National Academies took an active interest in endorsing the visit by a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
In April 2008, a fourth Nobel Laureate, Burton Richter (physics, Stanford University) visited Iran. His focus on energy issues during his well-attended lecture and in subsequent discussions provided insights into developments and policies in Iran and elsewhere. The workshop on energy issues arranged during his visit is noted in Chapter 3. He also met with Grand Ayatollah Haeiri who repeated the views previously voiced by the Vice President of Iran for Science on the importance of directing science toward peace throughout the world and avoiding the misuse of science for destructive purposes.
VISIT OF PRESIDENT KHATAMI TO THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES
In June 2006, advisors to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami suggested that the National Academies arrange a meeting with him during his visit to the United States. The National Academies thereupon invited him to dinner with a small group of leading American scientists and political analysts. He was accompanied by several Iranian foreign policy experts. He was in the midst of a whirlwind tour of the United States, which was leading up to consultations at U.N. headquarters where he was chairing an effort devoted to dialogues among civilizations.
In a wide-ranging discussion, President Khatami was enthusiastic about increasing exchanges of scientists between Iran and the United States. He emphasized the importance of including religious and cultural figures as well. On another topic, he was upset by the refusal of the United States to sell to Iran spare parts for its airplanes purchased in the United States many years earlier and by the canceling of the French commitment to sell 12 airbuses to Iran. Iranian aircraft were carrying passengers throughout the country on planes that were not in good condition. Finally, he noted that while he wanted to have his U.N.-endorsed Center on Dialogues among Civilizations in Iran or the United States, he planned to begin with a center in Geneva.
At the conclusion of the dinner, President Khatami supported the continuation of workshops on cooperation between the United States and Iran. He subsequently participated in the international workshop entitled Science as a Gateway to Understanding, which is discussed in Chapter 3.
PILOT PROJECT ON FOOD-BORNE DISEASES
The most ambitious project undertaken pursuant to the engagement program of the National Academies was directed to improved surveillance for detection of and response to food-borne diseases. This project was planned and carried out by the Research Center for Gastroenterology and Liver Disease of Shaheed Beheshti Medical University, with the participation of an American expert from the Oregon Department of Human Services, in 2005-2007. The activity was focused on a pilot area northeast of Tehran with a population of 340,000 inhabitants. The project had four objectives:
estimate the incidence of diarrhea in pilot sites,
determine the etiology of reported diarrhea in pilot sites,
detect and investigate food-borne and other common-source outbreaks in pilot sites, and
assess trends over time.2
Stool specimens were tested for four categories of E. coli, Salmonella, Shigella, Yersinia enterocolitica, Vibrio cholorae, and rotavirus. After lengthy preparations, during a three-month period 133 cases of diarrhea were reported with nearly one-half involving children less than five years of age. None of the cases required hospitalization or resulted in deaths. Medical treatments varied, with 60 percent of patients using antibiotics, 50 percent using oral rehydration solution, 36 percent using anti-diarrhea/cholinergic medicine, and a few using herbal medicine or self-prepared medicine.3
Limitations on the monitoring and reporting system included the following:
incomplete cooperation by patients and by night-shifts of staff members who were not well supervised,
slow transportation of stool samples,
incomplete pathogen identification due to incomplete knowledge or technical problems, and
lack of precise epidemiological investigations during outbreaks.4
The major strength of the pilot project was that it was a systems project addressed to upgrading both field and laboratory capacities. Given the standardized organizational approach throughout the country, it provided
pointers for improving the food-borne disease surveillance system in different regions of the country.5 The effort was welcomed by the food and health authorities in Tehran and attracted the attention of institutions in Tehran and other cities. It encouraged development of policies and guidance documents at the national level. The World Health Organization representative in Tehran was very interested in the project and repeatedly commended the Iranians for undertaking the effort.
There was initial reluctance among the health care workers to change their ways in addressing food-borne disease problems. However, after training and witnessing demonstrations of initial activities, they embraced the concept of improving their approach. Appendix B sets forth a dialogue between the key American and Iranian specialists which provides insights as to how this project became a truly interactive effort among specialists from the two countries.
ENCOURAGING INVOLVEMENT OF OTHER U.S. INSTITUTIONS IN ENGAGEMENT ACTIVITIES
As previously noted, an important objective of the National Academies has been to encourage other U.S. organizations to pick up the mantle and become involved in engagement activities. This effort is still a work in progress. Successes to date have been few. Two examples of this effort to diffuse interest and responsibilities in the United States are described below.
Following the visit to Iran by Nobel Laureate Joseph Taylor in 2007, the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology, after consultations with a number of Iranian university rectors, decided that linkages between Iranian and U.S. universities should be expanded. To this end, the Ministry contacted the National Academies with a proposal to invite several presidents of leading American universities to Iran. The National Academies turned for advice to the Association of American Universities (AAU), which is the focal point for regularly bringing together presidents of about 60 leading research universities of the United States and Canada to address common problems and opportunities for enhancing higher education.
The National Academies and the AAU decided that the AAU would be the most appropriate sponsor of the proposed visit of university presidents to Iran. The AAU arranged such a visit for November 2008. Six university presidents traveled to Iran where they were warmly received by an enthusiastic leadership of the higher education establishment in Iran, by professors and
students, and by the Iranian press.6 Plans are still being developed to invite a number of Iranian university presidents to the United States in the future.
A second initiative was also launched in 2008 when scientific exchanges were approaching a low ebb. The National Academies and several other U.S. organizations that have interests in expanding exchanges and in encouraging the U.S. Government to assist in this regard decided to have periodic meetings to discuss relevant developments. At the suggestion of the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) became a focal point for organizing large and small meetings with representatives of other NGOs and interested government officials to discuss the way forward. These meetings have been very useful in informing interested organizations of developments that are relevant to their interests while providing a forum for discussing recommendations with the Department of State on future steps.