Engaging Iran

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Science  18 Jan 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5861, pp. 258
DOI: 10.1126/science.1154422

Political acrimony in the wake of 9/11 quashed many already-constrained scientific interactions between the United States and Iran. Proposed Fulbright and sister-city programs that could have involved universities and medical facilities were also derailed, and obtaining U.S. visas for scientists became a major obstacle. And intensified confrontation over Iran's nuclear ambitions further increased political skepticism as to the value of scientific collaboration.

Though doubted by some, the recent intelligence report that Iran terminated its nuclear weapons program in 2003 may help heighten interest in cooperation in Washington and Tehran. There are good reasons not to let this opportunity slip by. Science-related engagement can not only contribute to solutions of global problems but can also help improve understanding of each country's society and politics, with attendant benefits for bilateral political relations.

The historical attachments of the Iranian scientific community to the United States remain strong. Scientific cooperation has shaped many programs at prestigious universities in Tehran, Shiraz, and other Iranian cities. U.S.-trained Iranian professors have introduced new programs in transportation design, materials research, and molecular genetics. The successful career paths of Iranian students who have studied at U.S. graduate schools in electrical engineering and physics are increasingly recognized in both countries. The number of joint Iranian-American scientific publications in international journals exceeds Iranian publications with any other country. At the same time, U.S. scientists have had access to Iranian research on seismicity, specific cancers, and unique approaches to fish farming in inland ponds.


But bilateral scientific engagement that can build on U.S. and Iranian technical achievements has rapidly atrophied. Many brilliant young Iranian students seeking advanced study abroad are limited to Canada, Europe, or Japan because of difficulties in obtaining U.S. visas. And concerns over the political situation have reduced the interest of U.S. scientists in visiting Iran.

During the past 8 years, the U.S. National Academies have sponsored annual U.S.-Iran scientific workshops in both countries in areas such as limnology, water conservation, science and ethics, and distance education. These workshops and related individual exchanges have shown that cooperation on problems of mutual interest is possible even in very harsh political environments. In some ways, this bridge-building is reminiscent of early U.S. exchanges with the former Soviet Union and China. But more needs to be done to help repair the broken dialogue between the scientific and intellectual communities of the two countries.

The past 3 months have seen a remarkable series of science-related events involving Iran. An October visit by a U.S. scientific delegation concluded with a joint decision to increase the frequency of bilateral workshops and the number of exchange visitors. During that visit, Princeton physicist and Nobel laureate Joseph Taylor delivered a lecture at Sharif University in Tehran that was seen in person and via the Internet by thousands of Iranian faculty members and students. In November, the U.S. Department of State along with the Institute of Medicine and Academy for Educational Development organized a 3-week program for specialists in food-borne diseases from five institutions in Iran, including a joint scientific workshop and visits to U.S. institutions from coast to coast. In December, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia, began planning audio-video teleconferences with an elite high school in Tehran as a first step toward a long-term relationship. A salient new development was the launch of annual U.S.-Iranian seminars on “Science, a Gateway to Understanding.” The first was held in Tehran in November and involved scientists, political leaders, philosophers, and theologians to discuss scientific, political, economic, and social topics that affect understanding among nations.

Many political leaders in Iran associate themselves with science, and many technically trained Americans are active within the foreign policy community. Together, they are an influential group that recognizes that science is based on evidence and not on ideology. They are the ones who must become advocates of cooperative programs. Particularly now, at this time of great tension in the U.S.-Iran relationship, creative initiatives from the scientific communities of both countries deserve the broadest possible encouragement and support.

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