An OFAC license is needed if a faculty member of our U.S. university is in Iran at his own expense where his actions could be interpreted as though he is acting within the scope of his university employment.
– U.S. university research administrator, 2016.
“The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Iran. This advisory reiterates and highlights the risk of arrest and detention of U.S. citizens, particularly dual-national Iranian-Americans, in Iran and notes that the Federal Aviation Administration has advised U.S. civil aviation to exercise caution when flying into, out of, within, or over the air space of Iran. All U.S. citizens should stay current with media coverage of local events and carefully reconsider non-essential travel.” This commentary began the travel advisory of the Department of State (the department) on its website in March 2016, shortly after the release from prison in Tehran of three dual-national Americans.1
For many years, such travel warnings concerning visits to Iran have dampened enthusiasm of even the most adventurous American scientists to consider visiting colleagues in Iran. At times, U.S. citizens, and particularly dual-national citizens, have encountered travel difficulties in Iran. Fortunately, there were no interruptions of the National Academies-sponsored activities due to overly aggressive security officials in the two countries during 2010-2016. Delays at security check points involving excessive questioning have occurred, particularly at airports; and dual-national Iranian-American scientists participating in the National Academies-sponsored activities have at times been subjected to close scrutiny when visiting Iran. Still, given the
1 Travel Advisory, March 16, 2016: https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings/iran-travel-warning.html.
occasional apprehension in Iran of visiting Americans engaged in fields other than science, the importance of precautionary steps—usually the responsibility of the host for each visit—remains a serious concern. In the United States, occasional scrutiny of the National Academies-invited visitors has been reported to the National Academies but does not seem to be a major deterrent limiting exchanges.2
In 2016, the department issued instructions that no American scientist receiving funds or support related to Iran projects from the department, regardless of commitments from important and responsible Iranian organizations to ensure the safety of travelers, could go to Iran to carry out projects for the foreseeable future. The department emphasized that this position was “consistent with the travel advisory.” At the same time, private travel agencies based in the United States and Europe reported that hundreds of Americans had signed up for tourism visits to Iran during 2016, and that many hotels in the country had been sold out six months in advance.3 Arrests or confinement of tourists have not been widely reported, if they occurred.
VISA AND TRAVEL ISSUES
At times, American scientists planning to attend conferences or other events in Tehran are uncertain or even skeptical about receiving their Iranian visas in time for their scheduled departures from the United States. However, as of 2016, delays in approvals of visas in Tehran had been infrequent and seldom derailed travel in response to invitations to American specialists issued by Iranian partners through the National Academies. Such travel was usually planned well in advance to avoid disruption of travel plans. Visas were not an issue for Iranian-American scientists who held two passports; and the National Academies regularly learned from these scientists, who were traveling privately, about opportunities for science engagement.
Also, Iranian invitations for American scientists to speak at important international conferences in Iran were usually followed up by the hosts as soon as the invitees accepted the invitations with prompt visa arrangements, even with deadlines of only several weeks between receipt of invitations and
2 The short-term detention and interrogation of a member of the science staff of the National Academies, who was facilitating an exchange visit in Tehran in 2008, is described in Glenn E. Schweitzer, U.S.-Iran Engagement in Science, Engineering, and Medicine (2000-2009), National Academies Press, Washington, p. 87.
3 Comment by senior official of Department of State and by director of Washington-based travel agency specializing in travel to Iran, May 2016.
departures for Iran. However, such invitations seemed to have declined after a wave of invitations from 2012 to 2015, the time when newly elected President Hassan Rouhani and his associates began reaching out to well-known scientists from the United States and other countries to visit Iran. Until 2016 such invitations were frequent and important. Uncertainties concerning the 2016-2017 elections of presidents in the two countries were undoubtedly a factor in the subsequent decline in invitations from both sides.
Many American scientists travel to Iran each year pursuant to their own initiative or under the programming of tourist agencies. From time to time, they alert Iranian acquaintances of their arrivals or they succeed in having their tour guides arrange meetings with Iranian counterparts. Sometimes they have success in connecting with Iranian scientists or institutions with common scientific interests, and occasionally they stay in touch. While such visits may be important for the individuals and for science more broadly, the frequency of such interactions is far less than opportunities for American scientific experiences in many other countries.
For Iranians living in Iran—other than Iranian-Americans—who come to the United States for scientific purposes, the situation concerning visas has not been as favorable, due to both security concerns and limited visa-processing capabilities at consular sections in U.S. embassies near the periphery of Iran. In particular, during early 2016, a number of well-known Iranian scientists were seeking U.S. visas. However, the backlog of applicants was large. With no U.S. consulate located in Iran that could issue up-to-date visas, the visa-seekers were advised by their Iranian colleagues, who had also encountered visa difficulties, to travel to the consular department of a U.S. embassy in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, or Armenia where they could be interviewed as the first step in applying for visas. But these embassies had become inundated with applicants from Iran, and their consular departments needed more than two months for visa processing. Some Iranian applicants were then advised by these embassies to apply for U.S. visas at the consular departments in embassies in Jordan, Uzbekistan, or other more distant countries, which they could reach without difficulties in obtaining visas to enter those countries. Some Iranian scientists, uncertain of the outcome of such long trips to apply for U.S. visas, were reluctant to go to these unfamiliar locations on two occasions: first to apply for a visa
and then if the application was approved, to pick up the visa, perhaps on the way to the United States. They simply canceled their cross-ocean trips.4
Thus, despite what seemed to be progress toward improving the bilateral relationship on the political front— including reaching agreement on the nuclear deal, a number of scientists in the United States and their partners in Iran with parallel research achievements had little hope that science exchanges would expand in a significant manner in the near future.
Informal rejoinders of U.S. officials to concerns of scientists in both countries about exchanges that were not supported politically in Washington have included the following. “We must be very careful in reviewing visa applications since our new analysts know so little about the inner workings of the Iranian government.” “Iranian microbiologists may be associated with a biological weapons program.” “Our security personnel at the points of entry into the United States are not required to accept the judgments made in Washington and/or by the U.S. consulates that supported the approval of visas for Iranian visitors.” “We assume that Iranian visitors to U.S. laboratories are inspecting advanced electronics technologies.”5
Thus, it has not been easy for an Iranian scientist to arrange a professional visit to the United States. With the enactment of new homeland security legislation in 2002, the U.S. requirements for granting American visas to Iranians and others living in countries of concern to the U.S. government, and particularly visas to scientists, engineers, and doctors, had been significantly tightened.6 Going through the process of obtaining a visa and then passing muster with U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials at JFK airport in New York or at other U.S. airports that receive international travelers is an experience that few Iranians relish—even those who consider that they are achieving success in spending time in the United States.
COMPLIANCE WITH ECONOMIC SANCTIONS
This section documents the efforts of the National Academies from 2000 to 2016 to comply with the regulations of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Department of Treasury. These regulations are in a constant state of review, amendment, and interpretation by OFAC and
4 American host for group of Iranian scientists invited to several conferences in the United States, May 2016.
5 Comments by senior Department of State officials, October 2006.
6Patriot Act, 2002, and Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, 2002.
other government agencies that have related interests. Therefore, other nongovernmental organizations or individuals should not rely on the following discussion of the National Academies’ experience and actions when they are determining their obligations to be in compliance with relevant regulations in the months and years ahead. At the same time, the discussion could be helpful to other organizations in (a) identifying aspects of proposed activities that might be subject to requirements of current and future sanction regimes, (b) formulating inquiries to OFAC or to legal experts for guidance, and (c) preparing requests for OFAC licenses. Also, the discussion is intended to provide understanding of an important context for many of the activities that have been supported by the National Academies.
Entering an Era of Economic Sanctions
The era of strict and at times unique economic restrictions on U.S. interactions with Iran significantly expanded in 1979. In the wake of the seizing of American diplomats as hostages by the revolutionary forces in Tehran, President Jimmy Carter ordered a freeze on all Iranian assets that were within the jurisdiction of the United States at that time. Estimates are that billions of dollars in assets fell under this impoundment order, although details of financial holdings at the time are not readily available. Quickly the financial freeze was extended to encompass a complete trade embargo.7
In 1981, the United States and Iran reached an agreement on release of the diplomat-hostages. The impoundment of Iranian assets was to be relaxed. Also, the total trade embargo was to be terminated. Still billions of dollars remained in escrow in various accounts in the United States and abroad. The disposition of these funds has been debated in U.S. and foreign courts for years.8
The United States imposed important new sanctions when Iran was implicated in the explosion of bombs at the U.S. marine base in Beirut in 1983. In 1992, U.S. legislation called for sanctioning any person or entity that (a) assisted Tehran in development of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, or (b) assisted in development or production of destabilizing numbers of advanced conventional weapons. In 1995, President Bill Clinton
7 For background see, for example, “Iranian Assets Control Regulations,” 31 CFR Part 535. This summary, which addresses the history of sanctions and financial impoundments, was released by OFAC on January 23, 2012.
expanded the partial ban on U.S. trade and investment involving Iran. Then in 2015 the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or nuclear deal) introduced both optimism in Tehran and new complications in Washington concerning release of Iran’s financial assets.
Turning more directly to limitations on science-engagement, the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 impeded people-to-people contacts by requiring OFAC licenses when services were provided by U.S. entities to Iranian organizations. The Act was designed primarily to deter major foreign entities from engaging in oil and gas field projects. People-to-people activities were not the focus of the act. Since that time there has been a constant debate over the definition of services when considering collaborative or coordinated scientific research and related activities. The more specific bans and license requirements that the United States has adopted during recent years include restrictions on many types of commercial activities, such as financial and trade restrictions, oil and gas restrictions, and strategic trade controls. Such limitations seem to have limited relevance to scientist-to-scientist exchanges. But exchanges of scientists are increasingly caught in the web of prohibitions.9
In recent years, the European nations also expanded limitations on dealings with Iran, while the United States continued to build its sanctions regime on a longer and more extensive history of bans and embargoes. The European restrictions have included the following approaches that have edged toward the realm of science-engagement: embargoes on dual-use technologies; embargoes on services in the fields of chemicals, electronics, sensors, and avionics; bans on transfer of oil and gas technologies; and export controls on sensitive goods, technologies, and services.10
Adding to the kaleidoscope of sanctions are the U.N. Security Council restrictions, which reflect many of the foregoing concerns and also include the interception of banned goods en route to or from Iran.11
Important Milestones in Limiting Science Engagement
The interested scientific institutions and individuals in the two countries that participate or would like to participate in exchanges consider sanctions a significant impediment to development of professional interactions. As
10 Cornelius Adebahr, Easing EU Sanctions on Iran, Atlantic Council, June 2014.
11 See legacy.armscontrol, op. cit.
the political relationship began to improve in 2013, science-engagement enthusiasts thought that perhaps steps would be taken to loosen formidable OFAC roadblocks in the way of cooperation. However, this did not happen since sanctions that affected science also had economic dimensions that limited availability of funds for international activities. A few of the significant sanctions-related actions since 2000 that have affected science-engagement are as follows:
- 2001: Staff work within the U.S. government to develop a broad general license or set of licenses that would ease limitations on academic, educational, and cultural exchanges was terminated with the advent of 9/11.12
- 2003: OFAC announced its intention to permit cooperation in response to humanitarian crises, citing as a precedent its authorization for a contribution by the U.S. government of $5 million to relief efforts following the Bam earthquake mentioned in Chapter 3.13
- 2004: OFAC issued a general license for publishing activities that had previously required case-by-case licenses in response to a request from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, which was supported by a number of other U.S. organizations. Specifically, OFAC authorized the revision and editing of papers submitted by Iranian scientists for inclusion in journals and other publications that are prepared and published in the United States.14
- 2004: In connection with the general license for publishing activities, OFAC stated that for the purpose of the license the Iranian “government” did not include academic institutions. This precedent has been important since exchange activities are often more difficult to arrange if scientists from Iranian “government” institutions are directly involved.15
- 2005: The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics rejected 24 Iranian-authored papers for publication in its journals and canceled related presentations at its national meeting in the
12 Continuing discussions with U.S. government officials, 2000-2001.
13 OFAC, “Statement of Policy on National Disasters,” December 20, 2003.
14 R. Richard Newcomb, Letter to applicant re IA-209747a, April 2, 2004. See also CR 560.538, “Authorized Transactions Necessary and Ordinarily Incident to Publishing,” December 10, 2004.
15 FN 31 CFR 560.538.
- United States due to national security concerns linked to misguided perceptions of U.S. licensing requirements. However, these decisions were subsequently changed in the wake of the OFAC general license for publishing activities and of vigorous protests from American scientists.16
- 2006: The American Chemical Society informed 34 Iranian members of the society that their memberships were terminated since they were receiving membership services at reduced costs (e.g., reduced-cost attendance at society meetings and free participation in society training activities) in violation of sanction-based regulations. After a lengthy delay, the society obtained an OFAC license for several membership benefits and offered these benefits to Iranian scientists. However, most of the Iranian scientists no longer had ways to transfer funds to the United States to cover costs of their memberships.17
- 2006: OFAC announced it was establishing a favorable licensing regime for bilateral projects in the environmental field. Interested U.S. organizations would still have to apply for licenses for specific activities, but with increased expectations of positive decisions.18
- 2007: Representatives of the National Academies met with the leadership of OFAC to review limitations on science-engagement activities. OFAC representatives confirmed that the approach being followed by the National Academies was appropriate, with an important consideration being the difference between (a) workshops for general discussions of issues of common interests, which do not involve services and do not require licenses, and (b) other events that provide advisory or training services, which require licenses. OFAC representatives stated that they were not concerned about workshops held in third countries.
- 2008: OFAC issued a license to the American-Iranian Council to open and operate an office in Iran that would promote exchanges and educational programs and facilitate policy dialogues through roundtables, conferences, and publications. However, the Iranian
16 “Society Bars Papers from Iranian Authors,” Science, June 17, 2005, p. 1722.
17 Catherine T. Hunt, Letter from ACS President to Councilors of ACS, May 17, 2007.
18 Office of Foreign Assets Control, Iranian Transaction Regulations (31 CFR Part 560), “Guidance on Sponsorship of Certain Conferences.”
- government did not approve the proposal by the Council; and the office was not established.19
- 2008: OFAC denied a license for an American scientist to participate on an advisory committee established by the Iranian scientific community that provided an international perspective on how a new Iranian optical telescope could be best designed and operated to benefit the international scientific community. After interagency consultations, OFAC had determined that U.S. participation on such an advisory committee was not in the foreign policy interests of the United States.20
- 2009: OFAC clarified that if an OFAC license is issued for a proposed activity, it is not necessary for the applicant to receive additional approval for compliance with the Export Administration Regulations administered by the Department of Commerce since inter-agency coordination will have taken place. One-stop shopping had become a reality.21
- 2012: The White House led an initiative to limit Iranian student access to energy and nuclear courses in the United States and online, with a spillover effect limiting activities of U.S. faculty involved in higher education in Iran.22
- 2013: OFAC announced that it had adopted a favorable licensing policy for activities that are designed to benefit the Iranian people through exchange programs, including educational and academic exchanges. License applications may be necessary, but presumably they would receive more favorable and more expedited consideration than in the past.23
- 2013: OFAC issued a general license for personal communications that authorized American scientists and other professionals to take to Iran their laptops and other personal computing devices. While issuance of the license was motivated by the interest of the U.S. government in facilitating human-rights related communica-
19 PRWeb, “AIC Is Granted an OFAC License To Operate in Iran,” AIC, Princeton, N.J., October 4, 2008.
20 Letter from Elizabeth W. Farrow, OFAC, to applicant for license, June 30, 2008.
21 Department of Commerce, “License Requirements Policy for Iran and for Certain Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators,” 15 CFR Part 746.7, Iran, January 7, 2009.
22 See for example Public Law 112-158 and Executive Orders 1608 and 13590.
23 Department of Treasury, “Educational and Academic Exchanges,” press release, February 6, 2013.
- tions within Iran, American scientists traveling to Iran who were dependent on continuing access to their laptop computers while on professional travel unrelated to human rights issues welcomed the general license.24
- 2013: OFAC issued a general license for cooperative activities directed to endangered species and wildlife and to environmental conservation.25 Somewhat surprisingly, American environmental groups have not taken full advantage of this general license to develop programs that address environmental conservation problems in Iran.
- 2013: OFAC informed Elsevier Publishing that the company’s staff, editors, and peer reviewers based in the United States or U.S citizens living abroad could no longer be involved with publication requests from scientists who were Iranian government employees. This position was eventually changed by OFAC to permit such involvement.26
- 2014: OFAC issued a general license authorizing (a) certain types of academic exchanges and exports of education services that are related to support of undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) activities, and (b) non-degree courses and also non-fee programs that involve access to Massive Online Open Courses, with content equivalent to content of undergraduate STEM courses.27
- 2014: OFAC issued a general license to facilitate personal contacts with colleagues in Iran that authorizes use of certain communication services, use of publicly available software and hardware, and involvement in publishing related activities that are incident to personal communications.28
Many other details about OFAC views and positions are set forth in OFAC’s responses to individual applications for licenses. However, OFAC
24 Barbara C. Hammerle, OFAC Memorandum (31 CFR Part 560), “Interpretive Guidance and Statement of Licensing Policy on Internet Freedom in Iran,” March 20, 2012, Annex.
25 Office of Foreign Assets Control, 31 CFR 5 ART 560, General License E, www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/programs/Doc.
26 Elsevier email to its editors, April 30, 2013.
27 CFR Part 560, General License G, 2014.
28 CFR Part 560, General License D-1, 2014. Publicly available software defined at 15 CFR 734.3(b)(3), and publishing related activities set forth in 31 CFR 560.538.
does not release information about such applications, and these responses must be obtained from applicants willing to share their documentation. Still, the list of activities set forth above provides some insight into the complexities in dealing with OFAC regulations. Unfortunately, strengthening of sanctions affecting science-engagement receives considerable coverage in the U.S. media while declarations concerning the relaxation of sanctions are seldom publicized beyond the formal announcements on the OFAC website.
Impacts on Science-Related Activities
The impacts of sanctions have been many fold, particularly since 2010 when sanctions increased in scope and severity. Examples of impacts with science and technology dimensions are as follows.
- Iranian difficulties in obtaining needed industrial equipment and materials have contributed to a reduction of Iranian manufacturing activities, with attendant losses of engineering jobs that reduced opportunities to hire young university graduates who specialize in engineering.
- Restrictions on the flow of IT equipment to Iran have hampered efforts of environmental and human rights advocates in Iran, and indeed the population more broadly, to communicate with others within the country, although recent liberalization of OFAC restrictions (cited above) is now more supportive of this communication.
- Inflation in Iran has been directly linked to limitations on international trade and banking restrictions, and this inflation has affected financial capabilities of Iranian scientists to travel abroad.
- Development of the energy sector, including research and development activities to enhance the competitiveness of renewable energy, has slowed down, due to a decline in domestic as well as international investments in that sector.
- New investments in industrial activities in Iran by firms from Asia and Eastern Europe, including associated consultancy activities, have filled some financial gaps and have resulted in new S&T contacts of Iranian organization with these countries.
- Shady Iranian firms have expanded illicit activities, and black market activities have thrived in search of technologies of U.S. origin.29
29 Katzman, op. cit., p. 52.
As to additional impacts of sanctions and related policies on the science community of Iran, some American analysts point out that brain drain from Iran of researchers in sensitive areas slowed down as the Iranian government erected travel barriers to keep some of the best scientists working at home. Government officials and institution directors have probably reoriented some research activities to defense-related areas due to reduced opportunities to receive support for civilian-oriented research. Finally, some Iranian scientists may simply decide to stick to their original research interests, regardless of the hard times they encounter.30
Other specific enhancements of sanctions and related restrictions that have more immediate impact on cooperation are as follows:
- Cooperation in scientific research in physics, chemistry, and biology has become increasingly difficult as the U.S. government intensifies efforts to prevent cooperation that could possibly feed into military applications over the long term. In the past, American professors in most fields of basic science could give lectures and teach courses in Iranian universities without the need for OFAC licenses. Such activities are now usually characterized as services, and the necessity to obtain OFAC licenses has become a strong deterrent that at times squelches U.S. professional enthusiasm for attempting to travel to Iranian universities.31
- While OFAC has issued a general license for medical supplies that have been needed on an emergency basis in Iran, restrictions on international transfers of funds and limits on availability of hard currency have hindered Iranian ability to order and then pay for such purchases. Also, insurance companies and shippers are hesitant to become involved in shipments of medical and other science needs since they do not fully understand the scope of sanctions and the penalties for violating sanctions. The Iranian Academy of Medical Sciences has long had a list of medications that the Iranian government is prepared to purchase from abroad to combat both common and rare medical problems. However, purchases have often been delayed in sorting out the mechanisms for ordering, financing, and
30 Keyvan Vakili and Navid Ghaffarzadegan, “The Asymmetric Impacts of Sanctions on Iran’s Scientific Progress,” unpublished manuscript based on analyses of Scopus database through 2012, available from email@example.com, obtained from authors, June 2014.
31 Experience of National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (The National Academies), 2008-2014.
- shipping medications. Meanwhile, large quantities of medicines of poor quality from both local and international sources are reaching Iranian pharmacies through black market activities. Reliance on Chinese and Indian imports has not been satisfactory. Chinese pharmaceuticals often do not have the desired potency, and Indian products are increasingly going to more accessible markets.32
- Many U.S. organizations have long been interested in addressing environmental problems in Iran that offer important lessons learned for the global community. Environmental conditions in Iran have deteriorated to the point that several of the world’s most polluted cities are located in Iran. At the top of the world-wide list is Zabol, Iran. While there have long been adverse conditions from lack of effective environmental management throughout the country, sanctions have reduced opportunities for purchasing equipment and products to hold such problems in check. Iranian motorists rely at times on leaded gasoline despite requirements to use unleaded gasoline, since sanctions limit import of unleaded fuels. Sanctions-induced gasoline shortages have at times forced the country to use petro-chemical facilities for producing highly contaminated gasoline, and a host of dangerous toxic chemicals are then released. Finally, lack of funds available to industrial firms due to declines in sales of their products has led to widespread tolerance of malfunctioning equipment that control both air and water discharges at levels that greatly exceed environmental standards. In short, purchases of advanced pollution control technology from abroad has been difficult, even when Iranian funds are allocated for this purpose.33
More broadly, the widespread economic effects of sanctions buttress a belief of many Iranian officials that the West is trying to deny Iran access to technologies in all fields of endeavor as proclaimed by the Supreme Leader.34 While Iran has resorted to many approaches to limit the impacts, particularly resorting to trade based on barter rather than cash, the economic squeeze has been felt at all levels of society. Still, it may be an exaggeration to call the
32 Siamak Namazi, “Sanctions and Medical Supply Shortages in Iran,” Woodrow Wilson International Center, Washington, D.C., April 2013.
33 Tasnim News Agency, “Official Warns Against Environmental Impacts of Anti-Iran Sanctions,” November 11, 2013.
34 Press TV, “West Uses Sanctions to Monopolize Science: Iranian Minister,” January 30, 2013.
actions “crippling” sanctions, as is so often the case in Washington. Visitors to Iran continue to comment on the liveliness of activities in the major cities of the country despite the economic isolation.
Reflecting an important assessment of sanctions and the economy, an analysis by a leading western expert on Iran’s economy argues that Iran’s economic woes in 2015 were only partially due to sanctions. He notes the negative effects of populist economic policies, mismanagement, corruption, and collapse of the international price of oil. He reports the positive aspects of the Iranian response to the economic crisis can now be seen, including the beginnings of (a) empowerment of domestic industry, (b) reduction of dependency on oil export revenues, (c) reform of cash handouts, (d) tax reform, and (e) establishment of a legal framework that will lead to a business-friendly economy. In short, lifting sanctions may help boost the Iranian economy; but it is not the only step that is needed as was discussed in Chapter 2.35
In summary, for several years, there was widespread belief in Iran that reaching agreement with the west, and particularly the United States, on the nuclear issue would result in immediate relief from sanctions even though it would take time for that relief to be translated into more and better jobs. Public expectations in this regard have run well ahead of reality as the difficulties in unraveling the sanctions become increasingly evident and as U.S. missile-related sanctions receive increasing publicity in the two countries. But some economic progress should be gradually realized as commercial activities within Iran become unbridled in a few sectors as a result of the nuclear deal.
OBTAINING OFAC LICENSES
In 2000, the National Academies together with the Iranian Academy of Sciences and Iranian Academy of Medicine agreed to sponsor four workshops on selected scientific topics as soon as possible. All of the workshops could have been held without licenses, but for one unique aspect of the workshops. The National Academies decided that in order to promote sustainability of this engagement initiative, a published proceedings for each workshop would be important. Also, since all participants in workshops were expected to make presentations, a proceedings would help ensure the workshop attendees were truly scientists and not “minders,” who had other
35 Bijan Khajehpour, “The Economic Significance of the Nuclear Deal for Iran,” Wilson Center, June 2, 2015.
responsibilities. Publication of such proceedings required OFAC licenses. Fortunately, many months were available to obtain the four licenses; and OFAC approved all applications on time.
Then, as previously noted, in 2004, OFAC issued a general license concerning joint efforts in preparing scientific publications, such as proceedings. For several years, the National Academies conducted workshops without obtaining licenses. Eventually, as discussed below, at times the National Academies obtained licenses even though there was no legal requirement for the licenses.
At the outset of cooperation, in the early 2000s, the National Academies decided not to be involved in (a) transferring funds in either direction other than funds for professional travel, lodging, interpreting services, and support of other administrative aspects of meetings, (b) transferring equipment to Iran, or (c) transferring export-controlled information to Iranians. As the program developed, licenses were required for training programs to upgrade Iranian skills, which were important to sustain mutually beneficial cooperation.
Also of considerable importance, operational reasons for obtaining licenses for workshops and other events even when licenses were not legally required emerged early in the program. For example, some U.S. officials who routinely reviewed and then approved or rejected applications by Iranian scientists for U.S. visas were not familiar with OFAC requirements. At times, they denied requests for visas by Iranian participants on the grounds that travel to the United States was not being carried out pursuant to authorization set forth in an OFAC license, even though OFAC licenses were not required in the cases under consideration. In addition, sometimes American travelers to Iran were concerned that their travel had not been officially endorsed by the U.S. government, and providing them with a copy of an approved license eased their concerns and the concerns of their institutions. In recent years, U.S. universities have increasingly required that faculty members could travel to Iran only if the activity was covered by a license, usually not knowing when licenses were required. Also, at times it has been useful for the National Academies to provide American hosts for visits by Iranians to the United States copies of licenses so they could show Iranian counterparts that the U.S. government supported the activity.
Finally, on occasion an activity that begins simply as an exploratory activity can lead to a more serious engagement that requires a license. Perhaps the purchase of equipment, the collection and exchange of soil or biological samples, or the provision of grants to Iranian scientists are components of a
second phase of a project that began as an exploratory workshop. Having a license for the first phase strengthens the case for a license for a second phase, which might require a license.
In summary, at times the National Academies obtained OFAC licenses that were not required in order to (a) facilitate the issuance of U.S. visas to Iranians, (b) ease concerns of American travelers, (c) convince Iranian officials that the U.S. government supports, or at least does not oppose, an activity, or (d) ease the process of obtaining subsequent licenses for more ambitious but related cooperative efforts.
Applying for a License
“We engaged a U.S. law firm for tens of thousands of dollars to prepare our request for an OFAC license so that our faculty members could visit an Iranian university and arrange for Iranian graduate students to study and conduct research at our university.” A senior official at a prestigious U.S. university was complaining to a group of visiting American colleagues about the complexities in dealing with Iran. He clearly was worried about not crossing into forbidden territory, which could cause his university problems. Having a license obtained through legal channels was to be his insurance policy.36
As previously noted, the National Academies have requested licenses when interactions go beyond simple exchanges of ideas and readily available information. The usual reason for requesting a license has been the inclusion of training activities as a component of the interactions since training would involve the provision of services, an activity that requires a license as previously noted. The request for a license has always emphasized the scientific benefits to the United States from the planned activities, since the department must certify that the activities are consistent with U.S. foreign policy interests in order for OFAC to grant a license.
Two requests for licenses were not approved, as previously noted, and the applications were withdrawn when the National Academies learned of difficulties within the government in approving the requests. In one case, the U.S. government considered that the proposed Iranian partner for a discussion of science policy was too deeply embedded in defense activities to participate in a civilian project with the possibility of providing Iranian participants with information on access to dual-use technologies. In the other case, the U.S. government was not prepared to authorize collaboration
36 Senior official of highly respected U.S. university, February 2009.
that included development of mathematical models for studies of economic aspects of the energy sector of Iran, even though the Iranian investigators had published articles showing that nuclear power was not a wise investment in Iran.
The documents prepared by others to support requests for licenses for academic and research exchanges that have been shared with the National Academies have usually cited at length the relevant OFAC regulations. They often discuss the political benefits for the United States in building bridges with Iran. These issues are interesting, but the U.S. government is well informed on these two topics; and presentations of such arguments may contain inaccuracies or raise questions that delay or complicate the review process.
OFAC and other interested U.S. government agencies are rightfully concerned as to whether science-engagement will result in leakage of sensitive U.S. technology to Iranian partners that enhances Iran’s national security interests or industrial production capabilities. Also, the U.S. government focuses on the technical benefits to the United States from the proposed activity. Thus, the National Academies addresses the following questions in its applications for licenses. “What are the mission, interest, and technical capabilities of the Iranian partner?” “What are the full dimensions of cooperation?” “How will the United States benefit from the activity?” “How will the costs of the collaboration be covered?”
Early in implementation of the program, the Naitonal Academies launched a pilot project to improve the surveillance for food-borne diseases in Iran, as discussed in Chapter 2. This project was to demonstrate how personal skills of a large number of Iranian medical assistants, particularly unpaid but well-educated female medical assistants in small towns and villages, could be upgraded to cope with the maladies of food poisoning. The American specialists would learn how a centrally controlled, but regionally implemented, Iranian public health system was reducing common illnesses that plague every country. This project had many facets, and it would take several years to carry out. Since obtaining a license at that time would take at least four months, the National Academies decided to apply for a three-year license to cover a wide variety of activities. OFAC issued the license without excessive delay and set a good precedent as to the advantages of multi-year licenses. Indeed, the license was easily extended for a fourth year.
Based on this experience, the National Academies soon shifted to applying for licenses that cover a number of directly related events over periods of two to three years. With such multi-year licenses, it is easier to ensure sustainability of efforts after successful completion of initial project activities than having to apply for a new license.
Finally, the National Academies has encouraged the department to seek support within the government for the issuance of OFAC general licenses for cooperative efforts in a variety of non-sensitive fields that will ease the administrative burden of initiating and continuing joint scientific efforts by the National Academies and other interested U.S. organizations and individuals. As previously noted, a good start has been made with the issuance of general licenses by OFAC for cooperation with regard to (a) publishing activities, (b) programs directed to endangered species and wildlife, (c) environmental conservation, and (c) use of personal computing equipment in Iran.
Recognition of the importance of general licenses in other fields is long overdue. For example, general licenses would be appropriate for activities that involve (a) assessing and monitoring environmental pollution, (b) estimating impacts of the effects of climate change on health and the environment, (c) developing and deploying solar energy systems, (d) assessing and treating infectious diseases, (e) researching the genetic aspects of selected diseases, (f) exchanging experiences on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, (g) conducting agriculture, food, and nutrition research, and (h) collaborating to preserve forestry resources in arid lands. The likelihood of such general licenses leading to unacceptable outflows of U.S. technology is low. In all of these areas, American scientists would have opportunities to learn from Iranian colleagues as well as sharing their own experiences.
In August 2015, the Institute for International Education (IIE) published an informative document concerning impacts of sanctions and export controls on U.S. higher education institutions.37 Several issues addressed in
37 Institute of International Education, Reinventing Academic Ties and Opportunities for U.S. Iran Higher Education Cooperation, July 2015 (www.iie.org/cip). See pages 20-35, “Rules and Regulations: Frequently Asked Questions about the Impact on U.S. Educational Institutions of U.S. Sanctions on Iran and U.S. Export Controls.” This document contains a detailed legal analysis of the regulations of the Office of Foreign Assets Control that are relevant to exchanges involving students and university faculty members.
the document, including but beyond issues previously covered in this chapter, follow. Since student exchanges are beyond the scope of this report, the provisions of the document concerning student exchanges are not included.
- While authorization is not required for U.S. persons to travel to Iran, participation in educational courses or academic research in Iran needs to be licensed by OFAC. To this end, a general license limited to several specific types of activities has been issued, which enables American academics to support not-for-profit activities related to increasing access to education, combating illiteracy, or assisting in educational reform projects.
- U.S. degree-granting higher education institutions can provide services related to the recruitment, hiring, or employment of Iranians employed in a teaching capacity in Iran pursuant to a general license.
- Articles prepared by Iranian academics can be refereed and included in U.S. journals pursuant to a general license. The following activities are explicitly authorized: advance payments for written publications; collaboration with American colleagues in writing or enhancing publications, including embedding software for reading or searching; payment of royalties; and marketing of publications.
- Iranians can serve on organizing committees of U.S. universities for workshops and on dissertation committees, subject to acquisition of appropriate U.S. visas.
- Americans can serve on joint organizing committees of Iranian universities.
- OFAC licenses are required for American universities to provide grants to Iranian universities for services related to research. There may be other requirements if the funds are provided by a U.S. government agency. Also, one-half of U.S. states have their own sanctions laws, and care is needed not to violate those laws.
- Almost all shipments of equipment or material to Iran require licenses. While there are generally no controls on shipment of results of non-sensitive basic research, each case is different, and consultation with OFAC is advised.
An important issue not addressed in the foregoing document concerns attendance by American citizens at conferences in Iran. The language developed by OFAC in 1997 that was intended primarily to control energy-related
activities is as follows: “The Iranian Transaction Regulations prohibit sponsorship by U.S. persons of conferences or events at conferences organized or co-organized by the Government of Iran or persons in Iran.”38 While the National Academies has participated in many meetings, and workshops in Iran, the National Academies ensured that the Iranian hosts assumed full responsibility for organizing the events.
This chapter has addressed primarily personal safety concerns, visas, and OFAC license issues. In addition, financial resources are required to support science-engagement. Indeed, without more funding from the governments or private sources, significant growth in science-engagement is unlikely, regardless of the potential payoff—scientifically, economically, or politically—from cooperation in this sphere.
Much of the attention of government agencies in Tehran and Washington in the near future will probably be focused on implementation of the provisions of the nuclear deal, which will require additional financial support for the activities set forth in the JCPOA. The likelihood of significant growth in the funds available for other activities seems low, even if there are pronouncements of global leaders as to the importance of and opportunities for expanding science-engagement between Iran and the industrialized world, including the United States.
Other U.S. organizations interested in carrying out exchanges also have financial limitations. But a major funding organization that is prepared to make a substantial and sustained financial commitment to the support of science-engagement with Iran has yet to step forward.
In Iran, financial resources for supporting cooperation with U.S. institutions seem to be in short supply. Nevertheless, when an American arrives in Tehran on a scientific mission, the Iranian host immediately assumes financial responsibility for many aspects of the visit. The sources of these funds are usually unknown to the visitor. Often the money comes from the private bank accounts of the hosts, who accept the funding responsibility with a smile and with a great source of pride and determination to show the positive aspects of life in Iran. And as confidence in the reliability of cross-border partners increase, financial shortfalls are overcome with the sense of professional achievements and comradery.
38 Barbara Hammerle, “Statement of Licensing Policy,” OFAC, July 17, 2006.