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A Pioneer in Modern Science Diplomacy Forges Hopeful Bonds with Iran
Norman P. Neureiter
[Photograph © Georgine Neureiter]
Profound political tension. Fiery rhetoric. Ominous signals that a longstanding bi-lateral conflict could degenerate into war—perhaps even nuclear war. Forty years ago, during the Cold War, Norman P. Neureiter navigated that climate in an effort to build better relations with the Soviet Union and China through science. Today, with the U.S. and Iran in the midst of a threatening diplomatic conflict, Neureiter believes that science cooperation may again contribute to improved relations.
With little fanfare, the director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy has visited Iran twice since 2004 for meetings and lectures and helped to host Iranian scientific delegations visiting the U.S., working in concert with the National Academies and other U.S. science interests—and colleagues in Iran—on a mission of science diplomacy.
Last month's U.S. intelligence conclusion that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 is a "remarkable development," he said in a recent interview, "but there are still many issues of contention between the U.S. and Iran. What we are proposing is greater engagement at the people level despite the political problems."
Despite the tension of recent years, Neureiter has maintained contacts with Iran's science community. He visited three cities in Iran in 2004, lecturing at several universities and technology parks. Reza Mansouri, an Iranian physicist and science policy expert, spoke at AAAS's Washington, D.C., headquarters last year. In late November, Neureiter and his wife, Georgine, hosted a dinner for 20 Iranian medical scientists in the U.S. for a visit focused on food-borne diseases under the State Department's International Visitors Program.
In his latest visit to Iran, in October as part of a 12-person delegation assembled by the National Academies, Neureiter saw vivid proof that the two countries' science communities share a reservoir of common interest and good will that could support a more constructive overall relationship. When Nobel laureate Joseph H. Taylor of Princeton spoke at Sharif University of Technology, students treated him like a celebrity, pressing for a place in a crammed auditorium to see him, asking personal as well as scientific questions, even seeking his autograph. Former President Mohammad Khatami had a cordial visit with the Americans at a banquet organized by the Iranian Academy of Sciences. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted to arrange a meeting with them, but was busy with the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the Iranian news media covered the tour extensively.
"The benefits of these joint visits are real—but they're also fleeting," he said. "So we should work with our Iranian colleagues to find ways to make these relationships sustainable and enduring."
Neureiter spent his early career as a research chemist in private industry. In the early 1960s he entered the U.S. Foreign Service; soon he was named the first U.S. science attaché based in Eastern Europe. A few years later, serving in President Richard Nixon's Office of Science and Technology, he helped craft scientific elements of historic agreements with the Soviet Union and China.
After more than 20 years with Texas Instruments, he was named in 2000 to the post of science advisor to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; he continued in that post under Secretary of State Colin Powell. He left State after his three-year term expired in September 2003, and he joined AAAS in 2004.
In a December interview with AAAS Senior Writer Edward W. Lempinen, Neureiter talked at length about the importance of science diplomacy in the relationship between Iran and the United States and the prospects for future S&T collaboration.
(Left to right) Biologist Michael Clegg, National Academy of Sciences foreign secretary; Norman P. Neureiter, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy; computer scientist Wm. A. Wulf, president emeritus of the National Academy of Engineering; unidentified man; Ayatollah Mostafa Mohaghegh Damad, Iranian Institute of Philosophy; and Grand Ayatollah Mousavi Ardebili. The group met in Qom, Iran.
[Photo © Glenn Schweitzer]
You've developed a keen interest in Iran and in Iranian-U.S. scientific relations. Tell me a little bit about your activities in this area, and what's inspired this interest on your part.
I have a really long-term involvement in thinking of international scientific and technical cooperation as a useful instrument of a positive and constructive foreign policy. I was involved in this in Poland during the Cold War; I was in the White House Office of Science and Technology in the Nixon administration and worked on building scientific relations with the Soviet Union, with which, of course, we had an absolutely terrifying relationship—a relationship where we looked at the threat of nuclear extinction—and so I've been very involved in this sort of activity for a long time. Certainly, it is well-known there is an emphasis on science in Iran and some significant scientific activity underway, and so I was very interested in learning more about the country, visiting there, and then trying to expand these relationships, which the National Academies began to explore seriously some seven years ago.
What are the potential benefits for the U.S. and the West, and for Iran, if we have closer engagement on science and technology issues?
What's so interesting when you go to Iran is how popular American scientists are. I would intuitively think it would be just the opposite, because certainly the official public rhetoric about America has been highly unfavorable. But particularly among the science community, many of the older professors were trained either in the U.S. or in Europe. Many of them remember their time in the United States with great fondness and nostalgia; there is in general a high respect for American science. They like very much to send graduate students or post-docs to the U.S. for additional education or research experience. So in that community in Iran, an American scientist is very welcome. Furthermore, the work in a number of fields in Iran is of very high quality, for example, in theoretical physics, chemistry, aspects of engineering, etc. I think we can benefit directly by cooperating in such areas.
In fact, we have heard directly from American university professors that have had Iranian graduate students or post-docs about how well-trained they are and about the high quality of their work. Secondly, when you look at the number of joint scientific publications of Iranian scientists with scientists from other countries, the U.S. is still the predominant country for cooperation, despite the very poor political relations between the two countries. However, we sense a declining trend. We see that the number of American-trained professors in Iranian universities is going down, and we think it's a good thing to try and reverse this trend. And then if there is an overall improvement in relations, or an improvement in the overall atmosphere coming from this cooperation, so much the better.
You mentioned that you were involved in years past in Eastern Europe in the 1960s and with the Nixon White House efforts to engage China and the Soviet Union using science. Does that experience color your belief now on the importance of engagement with Iran?
It certainly does—and in a very favorable way. In Poland, I was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw for two-and—a-half years as the first scientific attaché in Eastern Europe. I was responsible for Hungary and Czechoslovakia as well. Those years from 1967 to 1969 were extremely eventful times in those countries, with the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR and nationwide protests and rebellion of students in Poland in 1968. What we did then was to keep some channels open to the scientific communities of those countries. There were people that we could talk to. We were also able to carry on some very good scientific cooperation with American institutions, particularly in the medical and agricultural fields. We had scientists going back and forth between the U.S. and Poland, even though political conditions were quite bad and also exacerbated by the Vietnam War. Science cooperation was actually quite a large piece of the Nixon-Kissinger détente with the USSR, which began in 1972 at the Moscow summit meeting; and it was a small, but very real part, of the historic Nixon breakthrough with China that same year, which eventually led to the incredible range of cooperative activities in science and technology that now exist between the U.S. and China.
In any discussion of Iran right now, there's obviously a significant concern about Iran's nuclear intentions and its nuclear programs. The new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) seems to suggest now that the U.S. considers Iran's nuclear intentions less of an immediate threat. Some analysts have suggested that this new posture could help reduce tensions and create the possibility for a new engagement. Others, obviously, aren't so sure. What is your impression is of the Iranians' nuclear program and its intentions? And what is the meaning of this shift in the U.S. view?
I'll give you a personal opinion, but you need to be cautious about how you deal with it, because we try very much in building our scientific relationships to make it clear that we are not political scientists and we do not pretend to be political negotiators. We are not there for political reasons. But, of course, when one is there, the subject of their nuclear program and of U.S. war threats against Iran do come up. When we were meeting three years ago with some Iranian physicists in Tehran, I was told about an "open letter" to the government from the Iranian academic physics community asking what was going on, saying they were ignorant of the program and were concerned about the impact it was having on Iran's relations with the rest of the world. It seemed clear that at least one part of the physicist community was not involved in the nuclear program. You will recall that Iran's nuclear program had been secret for many years. The world learned of it when a dissident group announced it several years ago. Once revealed, Iran has said it is only to make civilian reactor fuel. What is clear is that Iran has procured some relevant technology; they now have several thousand centrifuges operating, though there is evidence that they are not operating perfectly. The IAEA inspectors have confirmed that some enrichment of uranium hexafluoride has occurred, though not above 5%. The U.N. Security Council has said that the enrichment program should stop and has sanctioned Iran for continuing it.
The recent release of information from the NIE representing a consensus of the U.S. intelligence community that Iran did have a bomb program, but that the bomb part was stopped in 2003, is a remarkable development. However, the enrichment program continues despite the U.N. sanctions, and enrichment is still a necessary part of both a bomb program and a civilian fuel program. With successful enrichment and incomplete IAEA inspections, a bomb program could easily be restarted. So, regardless of how this complex matter and the NIE's conclusions play out, there are still many issues of contention between the U.S. and Iran. Personally, I would hope that this latest development would decrease the level of tension somewhat and give us a chance to begin expanding the currently very modest scientific relationships and to build on them. Remember, what we are proposing is simply greater engagement in science at the people level, despite all the political problems that still exist. We'll just have to see how all of this works out.
There's a question that some people are bound to ask, given this tension, and given the possibility still that Iran might be interested in developing nuclear weapons: Would science-related engagement run the risk of giving Iran information, data or understanding that could be used against U.S. interests or Western interests?
When we started with the Soviet Union, there was a terrible concern about loss of secrets, but areas of cooperation were found where it was not a problem. In the case of Iran, the fact is, there are government controls on almost any activity with Iran requiring licenses from Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control [OFAC]. Certainly, participating U.S. scientists would not be cooperating with Iran in sensitive subject areas. And so there are many areas of science where one can operate with absolutely zero concern. Good cooperative projects in non-sensitive areas bring benefits to both parties and we can learn from our Iranian colleagues.
Cooperation tends to be principally in fundamental science, where one is jointly adding to the collective knowledge of the world with contributions of scientists from both countries. Good results are published in the open literature. In the process there is a lot of interaction between people. We learn much more about them than if we were completely cut off and isolated. They learn more about us too. But with Iran, one might ask in which way is the flow of information greater. We have a very open society, and people can find out what's going on here. As long as we're completely shut off from them with no diplomatic and almost no commercial relations of any kind—one of our problems is that we know too little about Iran. And so just by having some interaction in the scientific field, we do learn more about a country. They also learn more about us, but as I said, we're kind of an open book anyway. So, no, I don't think it's a danger for us to be trying to cooperate more in science with Iran. Again, it is obvious that subjects which are or should be classified are not going to be subjects of cooperation and are not going to be discussed.
Let's talk about the prospects and potential benefits of engaging with Iran. Taking a step back—how in your view is the European approach or Asian approach to engagement with Iran different from the approach taken by the U.S.?
Most countries have diplomatic relations with Iran. That means they have embassies there and they have diplomatic representation there, and in most cases there's been an emphasis on trade relations. Well, we essentially have a trade embargo on Iran and have had for a long time. We have U.S. Treasury sanctions against Iran, so no American can do business with them or transfer assets to Iran, or only with great limitations. The Clinton administration in a dramatic announcement allowed Americans to buy carpets, pistachios and caviar from Iran, so they were removed from the sanctions list, but otherwise you need a Treasury Department license, really, to do anything. For National Academies exchange activities, they have sought and usually, but not always, received an OFAC license. And one U.S. university which entered a formal exchange relationship with Sharif University in Iran also got an OFAC license to make that possible. So, if one wants to have a project or program with Iran, it is definitely advisable to go ahead and apply for an OFAC license. But it is one more barrier, along with visa problems that occur for travel in both directions—one more barrier in the bureaucratic chain which makes it harder for these relationships to be developed or discourages one from even trying.
I don't really know much about the scientific cooperation of other countries with Iran. I do know that Iranian scientists rather frequently go to Europe. Many Iranian students are going to Europe, often with funding from the Iranian Government. I was told that they will provide full-cost fellowships for 200 Ph.D.—level scientists to go abroad as post-docs or for additional education. Some do come to the U.S., but I was told they would like to send many more to the U.S., but they typically end up going to Europe or Japan, where they can also get good training and good experience with much less hassle in the process.
What advantages might they find if they came to the United States? What would be the advantage for the United States?
There was a very interesting quote from a Stanford professor which I have personally confirmed as being true. In electrical engineering at Stanford, where there are many foreign graduate students and post-docs, the Iranians have been among the very best. They come very well-trained and they do good work. And that's pretty impressive. So if we have more of their very young scientists here, that benefits us and our institutions. But it also increases the people-to-people interaction between our countries at a time when constructive interaction is very rare indeed, and I think that's a big plus as well.
It is not widely publicized, but the State Department actually now has a program of bringing Iranian scientific delegations to the United States, at U.S. expense. Just recently I was involved with a group of 20 Iranian medical scientists—in a delegation focused on food-borne diseases. They had been in the U.S. for three weeks, having started with a joint three-day seminar organized by the Institute of Medicine and then traveling to various medical facilities around the U.S It ended with a dinner on their last evening here at my home where my wife Georgine and I were able to reciprocate just a small bit of the tremendous hospitality we received in Iran and introduce them to some other interested Americans. It was a great evening. They said they had had a terrific trip and that they were so glad to have been here. That certainly is the kind of thing I think we ought to be doing more of with Iran, and I'm very pleased to see that the State Department is willing to support it. It sometimes happens that Iranians are not happy to take U.S. government money because of their suspicion somehow that the money is being spent for other purposes than building relationships. But the fact is that there have been some 12 such visits so far this year, including a rock music group, some artists, another medical group and a group of lawyers. In any case, this visit seemed very successful and it was a pleasure to be host for one evening.
Can you remember from that dinner any specific comment or any specific moment that captured the significance of such meetings?
Well, one woman, who was a professional physician in medical research in Iran, said that she had never been to the U.S. before and that the U.S. is so different from what she thought it might be, based on what she had heard and read. She said she had had a wonderful time and experienced great hospitality. She said that the laboratories that she visited were so well-equipped and their visits went so well. It made a big impression on her. Another said: "We had very good exchanges of views, and we had very good visits, but we really should take the next step. We should find ways to cooperate together to make more lasting, cooperative projects between us." It seems to me that's the real challenge for AAAS and the Academy to work on. The benefits of joint visits are real—but they're also fleeting. So we should work with our Iranian colleagues to find ways to make these relationships sustainable and enduring. Ease of communications today makes cooperation quite easy. The Internet is highly distributed in Iran and people do have computers.
Do you have any sense that the scientists on both sides stand apart from their governments, or do they represent their governments? I'm trying to understand how, with such tension between the government of President Ahmadinejad and President Bush, the scientists on both sides can transcend this tension.
Well, it's really a very natural question and a fascinating one. Certainly, there is concern on both sides. People are worried that there could be a war or military incidents of one kind or another. But it was impressive to me how independent of that war rhetoric the discussions among the scientists were
Take one example. On this recent trip sponsored by the Academy, we had a Nobel Prize winner with us—Joseph Taylor from Princeton, whose work and whose lecture in Iran was on pulsars. I am telling you, he was treated like a celebrity at Sharif University. There were 1,800 people in all, struggling to get into a room that would accommodate 400. They were hanging from the rafters. They were standing outside. His speech was broadcast throughout the country to the whole university community over their Internet or Intranet connections.
We visited the Pardis Technology Park, a remarkable community being built some 25 miles outside Tehran to attract and to assist small, high-tech businesses by providing advice and guidance, new business incubators, tax incentives, attractive facilities, expensive and shared equipment, and assistance with intellectual property. You drive through this arid , barren countryside, and suddenly as the flatland becomes hilly, you come to this new town of very attractive buildings in various stages of construction. It is scheduled to grow from its present 15,000 inhabitants to 200,000. The small companies were all set up and waiting to show us their latest high-tech, innovative products, some of which were quite interesting. They were so thrilled that Dr. Taylor was visiting that they decided a statue of him should be placed in front of their main building. They proceeded to have him stand in the place where it would be and took a series of pictures of him from which a sculptor will create in the coming months the statue that will stand as permanent symbol of excellence in science for the Pardis Technology Park
I found that pretty impressive. And during the entire visit, there was none of the toxic rhetoric routinely exchanged between the two governments—only talk about the products and hopes for these small companies and their young owners. That's how it went all the time we were there. As soon as young entrepreneurs get started discussing science or personal relationships begin to develop, the rhetoric disappears. It's fascinating and it's true.
Tell me more about the reception the NAS delegation received in Iran.
It was phenomenally favorable from the first day, and so much so that we even received word that President Ahmadinejad, despite his rather nasty reception in New York [earlier in 2007], said he wanted to meet with us. In fact, if you read his New York speech, he talked a lot about science. Maybe not the way we would talk about science, because it also was tied up with religion, but he talked a lot about science, and he does have an advanced degree in urban traffic management or something like that and there is clearly a respect for science in Iran. We were told that his staff was trying to arrange a visit by at least part of our group to his office, but it just so happened that our visit coincided with the visit to Tehran of Russian President Putin. So suddenly things got very busy, there appeared a large number of very sturdy, Russian-speaking security people at our hotel and the visit with Ahmadinejad just could not be scheduled. But I think the attempt to arrange it was quite sincere and reflected a genuine interest on his part and we were disappointed that it did not work out.
We were also told several times by different people that when Ahmadinejad came back from the United States, he spoke publicly in favor of more scientific interchange with the U.S. I have not found that statement in print anywhere, but was assured that those words were said. In addition, the former president of the country, Mohammad Khatami, was a principal honored guest at large dinner for us hosted by the Iranian Academy of Sciences and he personally spent a lot of time talking with our group before the dinner began. And then Iran's Vice President for Science and Technology, Sadegh Vaezzadeh, who had recently been appointed to the position by Ahmadinejad, also hosted our group for dinner. In the discussion he suggested that we should have a bi-national workshop on the subject of the misuse of science and there is presently agreement to try to do such an event in the coming year with the National Academies committed to working out the details of the meeting. Finally, five of us from the group of 12 stayed on for an additional two-day seminar on the subject of Science, a Gateway to Understanding, proposed and organized by the Iranians. They had also invited one Senegalese, one Japanese and three French scientists to participate in that as well. Former President Khatami also addressed this meeting. So it became a kind of international seminar discussing how science and science policy could in fact be an instrument for increasing understanding among different countries and cultures. The papers presented there will be assembled in a publication and there is a commitment to follow on with another such meeting this coming year.
Is it too strong or too optimistic to suggest that we might be at a turning point with Iran, given the new National Intelligence Estimate, and some scientists'—
That's not for me to say. There's a lot of baggage in the relationship, and secondly, the recent nuclear talks with the Europeans went very badly. The Iranians took a very hard-nosed line, I am told. And in the U.S. the NIE conclusion that Iran has given up its bomb program has been cited by the Bush administration as one of the successes of its hard-line policy of sanctions and threats against Iran. So there is not yet much public evidence of a near-term tipping point.
But let me tell you one thing about Iran, and I've had a lot of interaction with many people about Iran over particularly the last six months. Theirs is a very complicated system, and even the professional policy wonks here in Washington often don't quite seem to know from one day to the next who's officially speaking, that is, who's really giving the official current line in Iran. There are different factions there. There are different authority centers. There are different spokespeople speaking at different times. There is a Supreme Leader at the pinnacle of government, who in principle is in charge of everything, but there are many actors below him, and he doesn't speak publicly very often. The president has power, but he by no means has all the power.
It's a complicated situation, and also their negotiating strategy seems to be very complicated. You may think you have a deal, or things may go well one time, and the next time they go very badly. Take the nuclear talks with the Europeans as an example. The previous negotiator in the nuclear talks was Ali Larijani and there seemed to be some slight positive movement, albeit not very much. While we were in Iran, one day their English language newspaper carried a huge headline, "Larijani Resigns." But then it looked like he did not, when the next day's paper said it was not certain he was resigning. And then he did attend the next negotiating session with Europe just a short time later along with the man who subsequently did become his successor. And that successor in the next meeting with Europe took a very hard line again.
So it's very hard to know. There is no basis yet for forecasting this as a major change. But, at least in my view, things are not worse today than they were before the NIE came out. And if you are an engager as I am, you believe in engagement as a long-term strategy and you have to keep plugging ahead even as the politics may change from week to week or even day to day.
I realize that this last visit was a National Academy of Sciences-sponsored event, and you were part of a larger delegation, but is there a role that specifically AAAS should be playing in working to have a constructive engagement with Iran and its scientists and engineers?
Well, as you know, AAAS Chief International Officer Vaughn Turekian is working to define the appropriate kind of international profile for the institution and so his view on this issue is very important. My own short-term view is that there is a modest role that AAAS could play. For instance, I committed to the Iranians to try to follow up further with them in the area of science policy. I think some of our AAAS people could participate with Iran in activities related to science policy, because of what we do in science policy in the U.S. Secondly, I think it needs to be considered whether or not we could draw on our membership to try to catalyze more science cooperation with Iran, or for that matter with other countries as well. That decision would involve many people here at AAAS, but it seems to me to be a useful question to raise.
Are there specific areas, do you think, where engagement could be particularly effective?
Certainly they're strong in theoretical physics. They have a very good group in cognition science, but it's a small group. But by the way, here's some exciting news: We visited one of the leaders of this brain research area in Iran. He said he has been waiting for a visa to the United States for one year, but has heard nothing, to which I could only respond: "Unbelievable!" And so I looked into it at State when I got back home and was told he should once again contact our consulate in Dubai and answer some questions. More information was needed from him. Anyway, just few weeks later, he sent me an email saying his visa had been approved. The visa process can be a big barrier to easier cooperation.
They are strong in engineering across the board. They have good chemistry and better ties to the U.S. would definitely help them and benefit us as well if there were more post-doc positions for them in the U.S. They have a good tradition in mathematics that I don't know too well, but that is a possibility. There's interest in earthquake research and, of course, Iran is very prone to earthquakes. There's a potential for cooperation in that field.—from seismic science to engineering of structures. They are also strong in medical science, and I think there are good possibilities there. They've also done some very interesting work on drug treatment. Drugs are a national problem, especially drugs coming in from Afghanistan. But they have taken a rather constructive approach to dealing with it. It's not all punishment or just incarceration, but they're actually trying to work with curing people, so I would think there's some potential in that field.
How would you assess the prospects for expanded scientific and technological engagements between the U.S. and Iran over the next five or 10 years?
Well, you see, we've got huge legal, administrative and legislative barriers between us and a normal relationship with Iran. One thing which some people on Capitol Hill have recommended—not that they necessarily like Iran, but we did talk with a congressman who thought that there ought to be much more interaction with Iranians—even to the idea of putting a U.S. visa office in Iran. That doesn't necessarily mean full diplomatic relations, but at least here in the U.S., the Pakistan Embassy houses an Iranian Interest Section that can issue visas here. We do not have to fly to Paris to get our visas to visit Iran, but Iranians have to fly to Dubai or Kuwait or some place else to apply for a visa, then go home to wait typically a month or two to see if it has been approved, and then fly back to Dubai and pick up the visa and fly on to the U.S. Some people just say, 'Look, I can go to Europe with no problem, and you know they've got an embassy here in Tehran. I can apply for my visa here so I can go there to scientific meetings, I can go there and study, I can go there for a vacation, and so why bother coming to the United States?'
This now gets us to a more general issue. I think this increasing isolation of ourselves from people, particularly from people whom we don't like, through this visa process, is really very destructive to our long-term interests in the world. So fixing that problem—not easy—is one way that things could improve. Of course, it is not certain that a modest increase in our scientific relationships can be a model for improving overall relations. But the possibility exists, the risks are small, and certainly it cannot make things worse. I think it is very much worth trying. And then we will just have to see how things play out.
7 January 2008