We are prepared to consider all serious proposals for U.S.-Iran cooperation in science and technology
– Iran’s Vice President for Science and Technology, 2015.
In mid-2017, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine were uncertain whether a continuation of meaningful science-engagement activities involving American and Iranian colleagues would be possible in the near term.
As discussed in Chapter 2, political concerns of the U.S. government had led to a temporary suspension of the National Academies’ science-engagement program in 2009, following the election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a second term. Despite the continuing decline in the political relationship between the two governments, nongovernmental science-engagement endorsed by the U.S. government rebounded. The National Academies’ program then again became a limited but nevertheless important component of the overall relationship between the two countries.
However, by 2017 the political conditions for science-engagement had become much starker than in earlier years, even with (a) an upsurge in the National Academies’ program from 2012 to 2016, (b) growth in the Iranian student population in the United States, and (c) successful conclusion of negotiations that led to signing by seven countries of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or Nuclear Deal).
As noted throughout this report, the National Academies have not been involved in exchanges in the nuclear or other security-sensitive fields. Nevertheless, the limitations on issuance of visas, the reach of sanctions, and security concerns in both countries have at times blurred the distinctions
between civil-oriented exchanges and national security-related endeavors, including exchanges in a number of fields that might touch on developments of interest to defense-oriented organizations.
In 2016, the implementation of commitments by the United States, Iran, and other countries pursuant to the Nuclear Deal was under way. At the same time, critics of the JCPOA in the United States and Iran often challenged the claims of their adversaries in the other country that “sufficient” compliance with the JCPOA had been achieved, while also pointing to provocative acts in other areas, such as reckless naval maneuvers in international waters. The most extreme critics in both countries argued that provocations provided a basis for withdrawal from the Nuclear Deal.
Meanwhile, with regard to implementation of Annex III of the JCPOA that identifies topics for civil nuclear science exchanges should the parties to the JCPOA or international organizations be interested, several European countries promptly launched a number of initiatives to collaborate with Iranian counterparts. The United States has waited for an appropriate time to take steps toward implementation of Annex III through involvement of American scientists in civil nuclear exchange activities. The Iranian government may be simply awaiting the first move toward bilateral engagement pursuant to Annex III to be taken in Washington.
This chapter reviews the experience of the National Academies during recent years of science-engagement in developing a basis for continued collaboration in non-nuclear activities, should there be opportunities in the near future for renewal of science-engagement. The initial emphasis of the chapter is on the important implementation role of U.S. partners—and particularly U.S. universities—that will probably continue their interest in collaborating with Iranian organizations to the extent possible. The chapter then turns to implementation of Annex III, which could become a milestone in development and expansion of science-engagement activities. Three additional topics relevant to exchanges are also addressed: (a) the overarching challenge of limiting economic development activities that stress the Iranian environmental landscape and the role of international cooperation in addressing these stresses, (b) the opportunities for regional cooperation in several areas that should be of particular interest to both Iran and the United States, and (c) the importance of improved understanding in the United States of the development of Iran’s science, technology, and innovation approaches and capabilities that were briefly discussed in Chapter 2 and increasingly have international dimensions. Finally, the chapter describes several high visibility
cooperative events that have been suggested by American and Iranian scientists in recent years and may warrant consideration in the future.
THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES’ SELECTION OF FIELDS AND ENGAGEMENT OF UNIVERSITY PARTNERS
Chapter 2 noted that during the early years of the National Academies’ science-engagement with Iranian institutions, the programming concept was to initiate exchanges as quickly as possible in a wide variety of fields of mutual interest. As a result, by 2010 the National Academies’ program had supported exchanges in more than 15 fields of science, technology, and medicine. Then, in recognition of the importance of sustaining contacts that had been established, the strategy began to change in view of limitations on financial support. The evolving concept was to focus on only a few fields for exchanges and then to scale up cooperation in these fields over the long term.
The National Academies’ access to financial support, while limited, has often been more favorable than pathways for financing cooperation that are available to Iranian institutions. Therefore, the National Academies usually have taken the initial step in proposing an activity. The Iranian partners have then been able to cite the National Academies’ success in obtaining political and financial support in the United States for a specific activity as leverage in arranging financing by their side. Clearly, the financial aspect has been a particularly significant factor in selection of topics and venues.
An important aspect of the evolving program strategy called for the National Academies to work with interested U.S. universities that were prepared to devote some of their own resources, plus external resources that they could obtain, to activities in fields that reflected Iranian as well as U.S. interests. Then the National Academies gradually transferred the U.S. responsibility for organizing sustained cooperation in a particular field to a collaborating U.S. university, with the National Academies playing a supporting role when this would be helpful. For example, the National Academies could assist in obtaining licenses from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as discussed in Chapter 4 and in identifying the limited opportunities for external financial support.
By 2016, the National Academies had joined with three U.S. universities in supporting exchanges in three important fields highlighted in Chapter 3, and these partnerships soon resulted in significant achievements.
- Seismic science and engineering, in cooperation with the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research (PEER) Center, University of California at Berkeley. The National Academies began working with the PEER center in 2004. By 2010 the center was operating largely independently in collaboration with Sharif University of Technology, and through that university with a number of other institutions in Iran. This program became a model for cooperation of considerable interest to the National Academies, and indeed to the United States and Iranian scientific communities broadly, as discussed in Chapter 3.
- Conservation and effective use of water resources, in cooperation with the University of California at Irvine. The university hosted several workshops in cooperation with the National Academies while also organizing other workshops and individual visits carried out in the United States and Iran. The university has effectively organized a variety of water-related activities in cooperation with scientists at a number of Iranian universities and has played a particularly important role in supporting efforts focused on Lake Urmia and on several other water-deficit areas of Iran.
- Resilient Cities, in cooperation with the University of Arizona. While the university has cooperated with the National Academies in organizing a variety of collaborative activities in the United States and Iran, its most innovative approaches have been carried out through a focus on resilience of cities, a relatively new concept in Iran. The university organized bilateral workshops on resilience in both the United States and Iran, and Sharif University of Technology then established a counterpart center on one of its campuses with an emphasis on research on resilience of cities. During a subsequent visit to Tehran, American scientists worked closely with Iranian counterparts in developing significant research opportunities.
Two other National Academies-promoted university-based collaborations were in their formative stages in 2016, but due to difficulties in obtaining financial support the proposed collaborations had not led to sustainable relationships between U.S. and Iranian counterpart universities. Duke University sent a leading specialist in air pollution to Iran where he and a colleague from the University of California in Berkeley had an enthusiastic reception during keynote presentations at a conference led by specialists
from the University of Tehran. Tentative plans for sustained collaboration were discussed in Tehran but were stymied by the lack of financial support on the U.S. side. In another field, the University of Maryland hosted a visit by Iranian specialists in the conservation of wetlands, and the university was prepared to expand this embryonic relationship in response to an invitation to send experts to Ramsar, Iran, the birthplace of the International Convention on Wetlands. However, the university program also stalled due to lack of funds.
The issue of financial support needs to be resolved if U.S. universities are to play a long-term role in sustaining cooperation. The level of support does not need to be high, but some funding is required to offset direct costs.
Given financial constraints, the National Academies should decide whether it will continue its leadership role in science-engagement with Iran as the intergovernmental political standoff continues to litter the landscape with high barriers to effective cooperation. A key issue is whether the strategy should continue to focus on (a) helping to ensure long-term support of a few cross-ocean partnerships managed by the National Academies’ partners, or (b) undertaking by the National Academies of exploratory activities in a larger number of fields, with the expectation that some of these small efforts could continue under the auspices of other U.S. institutions, as was the approach in the early 2000s.
ANNEX III OF THE NUCLEAR DEAL
From the outset of the National Academies’ program, overlaps between nuclear and other scientific disciplines were evident. Also some American exchange scientists had a general awareness of the nuclear controversy although during visits to Iran they were focusing on non-nuclear issues. At times in private discussions, Iranian and American scientists would air concerns about the nuclear standoff. The Americans would usually argue that given the vast oil and gas resources of Iran, nuclear power was not necessary. The Iranians would almost always agree; but they nevertheless were adamant in insisting that Iran not be denied the right to have nuclear power. They regularly interpreted the diplomatic position of the United States as denying Iran that right. “You do not understand the Iranian mentality” was a frequent rejoinder of Iranian colleagues when this Iranian right came into question. They often noted that as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is guaranteed that right.
A common interest of a number of American scientists who visited Iran was the widely publicized, but frequently delayed, construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which in the 1970s had involved German engineers and more recently Russian scientists and engineers. Remembering the devastating accident at Chernobyl, very few Americans were comfortable in entrusting Russia to be the guardian of safety at Bushehr. Thus, the National Academies received occasional suggestions from American Iran-watchers that a science-engagement program should address nuclear safety issues in Iran. The National Academies were not interested in becoming involved in nuclear activities and argued that the primary responsibility belonged to the Russian government as the provider of the nuclear technology that was being installed. However, in 2017 the European Atomic Energy Commission became involved in promoting nuclear safety in Iran.1 Meanwhile, the National Academies took note of the relevance of the National Academies’ earlier experiences in Iran and other countries to some of the provisions of Annex III.
Early in the National Academies’ science-engagement activities, a senior Iranian researcher working at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran urged joint efforts to improve radiation therapy facilities in Tehran. He complained about the primitive state of facilities that were available to the general public. But the National Academies set aside the idea at that time as being too close to nuclear concerns. This topic then reappeared in Annex III.
Also, in 2009, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran had announced a plan to build a large modern radiation therapy center in Tehran, with a projected cost of $200 million. Iranian newspapers published sketches of the proposed center.2 The accompanying commentaries heralded this center as filling an important gap in the nation’s health-care system and argued that a new center was urgently needed to treat cancer. However, as Iran’s economic situation continued to decline, the proposed project quickly disappeared from sight.
As in the case of nuclear safety, during advancement toward a nuclear deal radiation therapy again was on the table as a topic for cooperation during implementation of the JCPOA. Informal discussions with Iranian physicists indicated that a more modest effort than a new center seemed to be a reasonable first step.
1 EU Project for Nuclear Safety for Iran, April 4, 2017. http://europa.eu/press-release_MEX17-10031003_en.htm.
2 “Radiation Therapy Center,” Tehran Times, p. 2, March 23, 2008.
Also, as the nuclear negotiations unfolded, concern of the U.S. government began to focus on the importance of new job opportunities for Iranian scientists and engineers who would be forced to abandon their weapons-oriented careers. Informal estimates by U.S. government officials indicated that thousands of former weapon-oriented scientists would become under-employed. They noted that a precise estimate could only be made by the Iranian government. By the end of 2016, better estimates had not been offered informally or through published documents.3
As interest in this topic increased in Washington, American officials with experience in Russia two decades earlier reflected on the relevance of the efforts that were undertaken by the U.S. government and other interested governments to redirect Russian weapon scientists—and particularly nuclear scientists—from designing and developing components of military systems to working on civilian-oriented tasks. A number of these redirection programs sponsored by the United States, European, and Japanese governments as well as by the Russian government were considered quite successful, at least for the short term. They seemed to offer a number of lessons learned concerning redirection of significant numbers of talented weapon scientists to new careers that deserved consideration in assessing the situation in Iran.
The National Academies were involved in designing and implementing several of the aforementioned programs to redirect talents of weapon scientists in Russia and other states that emerged with the break-up of the former Soviet Union, beginning in 1991. The National Academies’ activities, supported by the U.S. government, continued for more than a decade. Thus, it was not surprising that the department began informal consultations with the National Academies in 2016 concerning the feasibility of reorienting career paths for Iranian weapon scientists 30 years later, even though the National Academies had until that time assiduously avoided participating in such discussions with Iranians or proposing cooperative projects to U.S. officials involving nuclear-weapon expertise.4
Focal points of the informal discussions were the least sensitive approaches called for in the Annex that could be carried out quickly by nongovernmental institutions as a first step in U.S. involvement in implementing Annex III. Then if confidence on both sides developed pursuant
3 Informal discussion with Department of State officials, August 17, 2016.
4 Relevant experience of the National Academies in addressing the issue of underemployed Russian weapon scientists provides much of the basis for the book by Glenn E. Schweitzer, Containing Russia’s Nuclear Firebirds, University of Georgia Press, 2013.
to implementation of the annex and it became clearer to all that exchanges could advance science and not simply provide access to sensitive facilities, the governments could gradually take on more sensitive implementation responsibilities. Individual American scientists have indicated to the National Academies their interest in participation in the provisions of Annex III, should the U.S. and Iranian governments decide to move forward with implementation of Annex III. Given the uncertainty concerning implementation of Annex III, the National Academies have not begun the process of analysis and consultations about the priority that should be given to these or any other provisions of Annex III (see Appendix H).
In one area linked to Annex III, since 2015 the National Academies have been interested in including desalination exchanges in their science-engagement program, with the focus on desalting technologies and not on the source of energy to drive the process (such as small nuclear power reactors). The first exchange activity has long been scheduled to take place in the United States “as soon as possible,” but the next step depends on the policies of the two governments.
In December 2016, the Minister of Energy announced that the Iranian government planned to construct 50 desalination units straddling the southern coasts of the country, each with a capacity of 200,000 cubic meters of fresh water per day. In addition a desalination unit is to be built in conjunction with the construction of two new nuclear units at Bushehr, which will be the power source for the plant. The Bushehr project is to be carried out by Iran in cooperation in with Russian experts.5
Meanwhile, in 2016 the European Union (EU) set a fast pace in promoting cooperation in areas set forth in Annex III of the JCPOA and in other science and energy areas of mutual interest. Appendix I includes key provisions of two EU-Iran agreements to this end. As of June 2017, there was no indication that the Iranian or the U.S. governments were interested in U.S.-Iran bilateral agreements to carry out the provisions of Annex III or to support other science exchanges at the inter-governmental level.
PRIORITY FOR COLLABORATIVE ENVIRONMENTAL PROGRAMS
Of all the difficulties being faced by the general population of Iran, none is more devastating than the continued decline in the quality of the environment in many areas of the country. The following challenges have been repeatedly set forth by leading scientists from Iran and from abroad.
Droughts, increased population, war, air pollution, climate change, industrial and agricultural production, sanctions, inefficient water and natural resource use, and lack of enforcement of existing environmental regulations have contributed to Iran’s current environmental crisis. Insufficient water resources are forcing people to migrate, putting pressure on others. Aquifers are being drained. Air pollution has made living conditions in Iran’s cities increasingly challenging. Wind erosion is furthering the desertification of agricultural lands, creating greater production demand on remaining arable areas. Biodiversity is under threat. On the other hand, Iran’s environmental future can be positively influenced by the collaboration of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Awareness and education, along with greater financial and human resources, will be necessary to tackle the problem.6
There are several reasons for putting environmental protection near the top of the list of areas for bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the future.
- The United States and Iran are members of a number of international environmental agreements—including agreements that address biodiversity, migration of birds, protection of wetlands, and protection of endangered species, for example. The stronger the compliance of some of the parties with obligations set forth in an international agreement, the greater the likelihood that others will follow suit with their actions.
- The United States has important political and economic interests in environmentally sensitive areas bordering Iran, including the borders with Iraq and Afghanistan and the coastal areas adjacent to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
6 Morad Tohbaz, “Environmental Challenges in Today’s Iran,” Iranian Studies, Volume 49, Number 6, November 2016, Routledge, UK, p. 943.
- American scientists who have participated in environmental meetings with Iranian scientists sponsored by the National Academies have usually reported that they expanded their areas of professional expertise through participation in the discussions. There have been a number of useful science exchanges with few problems in holding bilateral or trilateral meetings on environmental issues, and with little reluctance by participants to discuss both successful and inadequate approaches in addressing important issues.
- As indicated in Appendix J, the Supreme Leader of Iran appears to be committed to protection and conservation of the environment, which should facilitate Iranian government endorsement of joint efforts in this field.
In a variety of fields, including the environmental field, exchanges that emphasize regional approaches should be of interest to the National Academies and other U.S. organizations for a number of reasons, including several environmental-based reasons set forth in the previous section. The United States has interests in improving living conditions in a number of Middle Eastern states, including several countries that cooperate with Iran in scientific endeavors. Important scientific benefits often result from addressing important issues in a geographically holistic manner. The National Academies has ongoing cooperative programs in several countries that are near neighbors of Iran. Finally, the National Academies participates in regional programs that involve Iranian scientists.
Four examples of challenges of cross-border interest are as follows:
1. Water Conservation: As discussed in Chapter 3, the National Academies have carried out several workshops concerning steps that might lead to reducing the rate of evaporation of Lake Urmia near the Azerbaijan border, a topic that is of scientific interest to American researchers in California and Utah who focus on saline lakes. Meanwhile, to the east and south, two challenges have been of interest to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As noted in Chapter 3, the diversion of water flowing down the Helmand River of Afghanistan into the Hamouns of Iran is significant not only because of its devastating impact on the dried-out area of Iran but also because of the water diversion that sustains the heroin poppy trade within and beyond Afghanistan. Second, the absence of recycling water flowing along the border
between Iraq and Iran into the Persian Gulf results in avoidable losses of desperately needed water in both countries.
2. Dust Storms: The severity of dust storms in southern Iran defy exaggeration, and even Tehran and other major Iranian cities in the northern parts of the country are subjected to enormous amounts of dust pollution with origins in Iraq, Syria, and at times other neighboring countries. Various remedies such as spraying oil and other retardants on the desert floor or growing trees in desert areas to the west of Iran have frequently been suggested. The problem is sufficiently severe to warrant increased effort by the global community, even though feasible solutions have yet to be developed.
3. Arid Land Agriculture: With the closing of the facilities of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria, the absence of concerted attention among Middle East states to improve arid land agriculture stands out. Iran has long focused on drought management and over many decades has developed innovative irrigation techniques. Other water-deficient countries in the Middle East face similar problems, and the National Academies’ history in addressing these problems throughout the world should be useful in providing leads to improved management and technological approaches.
4. Spread of Diseases: The World Health Organization, and particularly its office in Cairo, has long been interested in reducing cross-border transmission of diseases in the Middle East; and Iran has been an important leader in the region in addressing human diseases of regional concern, including health problems associated with migrants carrying diseases across borders. Iran has for many years focused on the spread of hepatitis. Among the neglected diseases of growing concern that are also being addressed by Iranian specialists are leishmaniasis, dengue, and Chagas disease. The case for “vaccine diplomacy” has often been made by western scientists.7 Several Iranian universities would like to expand health-oriented student exchanges with neighboring countries and to launch joint research programs in fields such as molecular epidemiology. A modest but focused effort, perhaps encouraged by the National Academies, to develop region-wide university courses with international inputs in a few selected medical fields could be attractive within the region.
7 See for example, The Henry Kaiser Family Foundation, “U.S., Iran Should Consider Employing Vaccine Diplomacy,” November 11, 2013.
UNDERSTANDING THE SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND INNOVATION POLICIES OF IRAN
A number of American political scientists and economists for decades have given considerable attention to the internal organizational responsibilities and the associated national policies that guide the social and economic development of Iran. However, few American specialists follow the evolution of science, technology, and innovation policies and related organizational responsibilities in Iran for formulating and implementing approaches that impact on research and innovation activities. This topic was briefly mentioned in Chapter 2. Until 2013, there were few in-depth analyses by Iranian specialists in the field of science policy available in English for international audiences. However, many organizational and policy steps of considerable interest have been taken in Tehran to adjust and upgrade Iran’s approaches to becoming a stronger and better known technology-oriented country, despite sanctions and economic slumps.8
In the early 2000s, the National Academies supported several brief exchange visits to Tehran devoted to science and technology policy. These efforts were limited. The American visitors to Iran were hampered due to an absence of English-language books and reports that documented the many steps that Iran had taken in this field. Also, most of the best informed Iranian analysts were working in institutions that were largely closed to outsiders—for example, the Planning and Management Office, the Budget Office, the Office of the Supreme Leader, the financial offices of the ministries, and high-level think tanks that operated behind closed doors.
The number of young Iranian researchers with interest in science and technology policy is increasing at several universities. Thus, both young and senior scientists with relevant interests should be more accessible as their publications begin to reach international audiences. A number of these analysts probably would welcome engagement with American colleagues who are steeped in the topic of science and technology policy as practiced not only in the United States and Europe but also in Asia (e.g., South Korea) and the Middle East (e.g., Turkey), which may offer models for emulation in Iran.
The reason for promoting exchanges in the realm of science and technology policy seems clear. The more that each side knows about the structure, openness, interests, and activities of the dozens of analytical groups in each
8 For an overview of recent science and technology developments in Iran of particular interest to academics as well as government officials, see Abdol S. Soofi and Mehdi Goodarzi (editors), The Development of Science and Technology in Iran, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, N.Y., 2017.
country that focus on science and technology policy, the more likely scientists with common interests will connect and in time begin preparing joint analyses. These connections should contribute to improved understanding of the approaches of the two countries when encouraging exchanges in various fields, ranging, for example, from nanotechnology, to personalized medicine, to computer modeling of societal interactions. Also, it may become easier for researchers to assess the long-term as well as the near-term economic impacts in Iran of sanctions, since sanctions often encompass limitations on acquisition of technologies that in time affect economic productivity when new technologies come into play.
HIGH VISIBILITY EVENTS IN IRAN
The National Academies encouraged individual visits to Tehran by five American Nobel Laureates during the early 2000s. Also, the National Academies helped launch a group visit by seven university presidents to Iran. Each individual visit and the group visit were well organized, highly publicized, and enthusiastically received in Tehran. The visitors undoubtedly inspired interest among students beginning their scientific careers in Iran. However, the lasting impacts have been limited since the visitors had crammed schedules at home with little time or incentive to stay in touch or to encourage follow-on activities. This is not to suggest that visits by leaders of science are not helpful, but rather to emphasize that such visits should be organized in a way that helps stimulate long-term engagement. This approach generally means participation in such visits of energetic early career scientists who are eager to follow up with important contacts made by eminent American scientists.
In addition, consideration could be given to the following types of activities in Iran. They could be modeled after approaches in the United States while linking the events directly to practical needs of Iran. Of considerable importance, the ideas for these initiatives came from Iranian colleagues who considered that American specialists could play important roles in carrying out the activities.
Solar Decathlons: For a number of years, the U.S. Department of Energy has sponsored annual and biannual competitions among universities to demonstrate how solar energy can be incorporated into the design and structure of small houses in ways that maximize the generation of solar-based power, both to support activities within the houses and to provide excess
electricity to local grids. Single projects have involved as many as 200 architectural and engineering students who develop innovative ways to conserve and generate electricity through clever designs and selection of materials.9
Innovation Boot Camps: A number of organizations in the United States regularly sponsor short-term training programs that focus on innovation. These programs develop skills for organizing, conducting, and replicating novel approaches to providing improved goods and services that find niches in the public or private marketplaces. Of special interest are approaches that enhance the quality, reduce the costs, and improve the commercial attractiveness of products and services.10
Shakeouts: The U.S. Geological Survey along with counterpart agencies in earthquake-prone states such as California organize shakeouts to rehearse responses to earthquakes that could affect the lives of large populations. The simulated events at times involve hundreds of organizations that detect, monitor, and respond to seismic eruptions. Overall, 21 million U.S. residents were involved in these earthquake simulations in 2016.11
This report has chronicled achievements of the National Academies from 2010 to 2016, which in a number of cases have built on cooperative efforts during the previous 10 years. The scientific benefits of collaboration in the short run have seemed modest, but nevertheless tangible and important. According to well-informed American and Iranian government officials and advisers, the diplomatic significance of sustained collaboration has been quite significant. In short, this report should contribute to wider appreciation of the contributions and limitations of bilateral cooperation in strengthening the global science and technology ecosystems and of the opportunities for slowly but steadily transcending the U.S.-Iran political stalemate through science-engagement.