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In a Discussion at AAAS, Experts Explore the Future of Iran-U.S. Science Cooperation
(l-r) Francis Ricciardone (moderator), Robert Berdahl, Glenn Schweitzer, and Shiva Balaghi
Photo by Benjamin Somers
Despite the challenges posed by the recent detention of a U.S. science policy expert in Iran, a discussion at AAAS focused on the important mutual benefits for continued science engagements between U.S. and Iranian scientists.
The long-term uneasiness that has shaped relations between the nations is bound to make progress difficult, the speakers said. But the election of Barack Obama and the new administration's ongoing Iran policy review, combined with continued scientist-to-scientist engagement, may create a climate for improving bi-lateral relations in the months and years ahead.
Discussion moderator Francis Ricciardone, recently named deputy ambassador to Afghanistan, noted the importance of people-to-people diplomacy and suggested that the government is most effective in such efforts when it employs a light touch. In the past, Ricciardone has served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt, the Philippines, and Palau.
"Americans and peoples in most other countries and cultures really get along rather well despite the culturally distinct ways we have of doing business," said Ricciardone. "We are forgiven much because... we tend to deal with other peoples with respect and openness and curiosity and appreciation. So I think that's a good basis on which to proceed with any formal relationship as well as the people-to-people relationships that are so successful in many cases across the world."
Science and engineering cooperation generally provide an effective way to build communication and trust in a non-political context, said Vaughan Turekian, AAAS's chief international officer and director of its new Center for Science Diplomacy.
"Science cooperation provides an opportunity to work in collaboration to address key science-based challenges like health, environment, and disaster response, which have mutual benefits," Turekian said. "Along the way, this cooperation might also help build the people-to-people connections which are so crucial to a long-term relationship."
The 22 January panel discussion focused in part on the temporary detention of Glenn Schweitzer, director of Eurasian Programs at the U.S. National Academies, in his hotel room while he was in Iran with a delegation late last year. The speakers also explored how the U.S.-engineered overthrow of Iran's elected government in 1953 and Iran's lengthy holding of U.S. diplomatic hostages in 1979 and 1980 have engendered deep mistrust on both sides.
Schweitzer is a veteran of efforts to build science-based relationships between researchers in the United States and Iran, and has traveled to Iran numerous times in recent years. But during a December visit of U.S. medical researchers to Iran, he was twice detained and questioned in his hotel room for a total of nine hours by Iranian security agents who threatened to bar him from leaving Iran. After Schweitzer arrived home, the National Academies called the incident "very serious" and said they could not support further U.S. delegation visits without Iranian guarantees that the visitors would be respected and kept safe.
"We have decided that we will not send someone into Iran unless we have assurances that the trip is going to be less traumatic than my trip," Schweitzer said at AAAS. "At the same time, we fully intend to continue with our activities outside of Iran, involving Iranians.... We're fully committed to moving ahead and trying to do the best we can in the exchange area because we think the payoff is substantial."
Schweitzer's detention is not the only cause for concern, said Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, who led a delegation that included six U.S. university presidents to Iran in mid-November. For example, he said, an Iranian-American scholar from California State University-Northridge was imprisoned in the midst of her research on the Iranian women's movement.
But both Schweitzer and Berdahl said the incidents may be anomalies resulting from internal miscommunication or competition within Iran.
Berdahl found that the Iranians gave his delegation a warm welcome and were "very, very interested" in the United States. Many had family in the United States, and others had studied here. Further, he said, Iran is committed to academic progress. At the time of the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s, there were 170,000 university students; today there are over 3 million.
Schweitzer said that in recent years, cooperation between the science and technology sectors in each country has produced valuable insights for both sides on earthquake preparation, cancer research, water management, agriculture, and addiction science.
Schweitzer added that, in the days before he was detained, Iranian leaders who met with his delegation expressed strong support for the scientific exchanges. He said that one top religious leader was unequivocal: "'Charge on,'" he told the American delegation. "'These are great things to do. We like to have this cooperation. In fact, how can I be involved in this cooperation?'"
Both Schweitzer and Berdahl also noted that the delegations visited Iran at a time when the attention of the Iranian press was focused on covert U.S. efforts to foment a "velvet revolution" to undermine the Iranian government.
"The State Department does have what it refers to as the democracy project toward Iran," Berdahl said. "It seems to me that arouses suspicion. It does smack of regime change. It does, it seems to me, put the people's teeth on edge in ways that I don't really see the benefit of, and so I would ask... the State Department if they think that's a productive way of approaching the Iranian government."
A third speaker, scholar and author Shiva Balaghi, concurred. Current covert efforts remind even pro-U.S. Iranians of how the United States and Britain helped engineer the overthrow of the elected government of Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953.
"It's particularly frustrating when very well-intentioned people who are completely apolitical are going to Iran with very good intentions, but the fact of the matter remains that there was a policy in the Cold War era that led to the United States undertaking a covert operation aimed at regime change in Iran," said Balaghi, who until last year was serving as associate director of the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University.
The campaign to undermine Mosaddeq was accompanied by several years of scholar exchanges, development projects, art exchanges, and film screenings. And so current Iranian suspicions are "not completely baseless," Balaghi said. "And to ask Iranians, as [former U.S. Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright did, to simply forget 1953, is a little bit like asking Americans, 'Well, why don't you just forget Pearl Harbor?'... Countries have historical and national memories."
History, Balaghi said, creates a contemporary obligation to "to be extra-careful, to make sure that our cultural, educational, and scientific exchanges are truly independent of any government and any state and that we instead ask that states and governments try their best to remove impediments to cultural and academic exchanges."
Balaghi has been involved for 20 years in people-to-people exchanges between the U.S. and Iran, and she suggested that such efforts are most effective when they take place independent of government.
Schweitzer agreed that the exchanges are valuable, and suggested that if both the U.S. and Iranian governments operate transparently, then government-sanctioned or—supported exchanges could be effective.
"One could certainly carve out exchanges and work on that and keep that going even if the nuclear issue isn't resolved, even if the Iraqi problem isn't resolved, and even if Hezbollah is still causing problems," he said.
But, he continued: "The U.S. government really has to engage with the Iranians on the kinds of exchanges that make sense from both sides. They have to be up-front about who's paying bills for what. And I think then there's a reasonable chance, if we have complete transparency, which is conveyed directly to our governmental counterparts there, that the security people... could be kept under control. If there is a tone and a reasonable confidence that people are being open on both sides, I think the security problems have a chance of, not going away, but being damped down."
Ricciardone had been a guest scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace until accepting the assignment to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. He told the AAAS audience that, in his years as a diplomat, he found engagement and exchanges in science, medicine, art, sports and other fields to have great value. And they were most effective, he said, when the American Embassy would create contacts between Americans and people in the host countries and then stand back.
There was no motive "other than the proper one of creating mutual empathy and deep knowledge of each other," he said. "That seems to me a valued, important, and appreciable purpose, but it goes well beyond trying to bend another country to our will for this or that particular immediate or tactical purpose."
6 March 2009