A small AAAS delegation led by Nobel laureate Peter Agre returned from a week-long visit to Iran deeply impressed by the nation’s commitment to research and education and by the warm welcome they received from science leaders, researchers, and students.
The delegation was invited and hosted by the Vice President of Iran for Science and Technology, Nasrin Soltankhah, and it featured delegation members giving lectures at elite Iranian universities and civic organizations and meeting with top government and science policy officials.
Despite the continuing international tension centered on Iran’s disputed nuclear research and tightening Western economic sanctions, delegation members and their hosts said the visit raised hope that a shared interest in science and research might someday contribute to improved relations.
“Overall, it was a very positive visit,” said Agre, a former AAAS president. “Our meetings with faculty and students were always positive—it seems to me that we all have a lot to share…. From a scientific viewpoint, the doors are certainly open.”
The AAAS visit was “a milestone,” said Abolhassan Vafai, a professor at Sharif University of Technology. “[The meetings] created a very conducive and fruitful atmosphere for establishing scientific dialogue between the two nations.”
The visit was initiated earlier this year when AAAS representatives met in New York with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who 35 years ago earned a Ph.D. at MIT. The delegation that traveled to Iran from 6-13 June also included Agre’s wife, Mary, a preschool teacher, and Norman P. Neureiter, senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and chair of the senior advisory board at AAAS’s Science & Diplomacy online publication.
During the visit, the U.S. delegation had a brief visit with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his private reception area. Speaking in Farsi, the president offered cordial remarks that emphasized the universal values of science and that the knowledge produced by research benefits all of humanity.
Also during the visit to Iran, Agre was named an honorary member of the faculty at Sharif University and given an office there; he agreed to return to Sharif every year for 10 days of lectures and other scholarly activity.
Science: a Common Language
Support for science diplomacy by AAAS and others worldwide is based, at least in part, on a basic principle: Joint research and scientific interests can create engagement and help build trust between nations even when governmental relations are severely strained or broken.
(l-r) Norman P. Neureiter, Mary Agre, Peter Agre, and Abolhassan Vafai on the grounds of the Eternal Spirit in Art and Science (Chehre Mandegar) museum in Tehran, Iran. | Courtesy Abolhassan Vafai
Agre in recent years has been to Myanmar and Cuba, among other stops; the visit to Iran was his first visit since 1970, when he crossed the country with a backpack. Neureiter is a veteran of science diplomacy, having served in sensitive diplomatic posts during the Cold War and on the team in President Richard Nixon’s White House that crafted science agreements to thaw relations with China and the Soviet Union. He served as the first science and technology adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State before he joined AAAS in 2004. In recent months, he has been on science diplomacy delegations to Myanmar and the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.
Vafai, a leading figure in the Iranian scientific community, has helped to arrange visits by other Nobel laureates, a delegation of U.S. university presidents, and research officials from Europe and Japan. He has taught in the United States and Europe, and is the founder and editor-in-chief of the international journal Scientia Iranica, published quarterly in English.
In the relationship between the United States and Iran, scientific research has provided a continuing basis for engagement, often at the grassroots, despite prolonged governmental tension.
Iran has an accomplished science sector, with focus areas including medical and stem cell research, petroleum engineering, space exploration, and nanotechnology. The rate of growth in scholarly publications by Iranian researchers is about 11% higher than average publications of any other nation, Vafai said in a telephone interview. At the 2011 International Mathematics Competition for University Students, a team from Sharif University placed 7th out of 77 teams, three places higher than the top U.S. team, from Princeton.
Many of Iran’s science policy leaders and university faculty members were educated in the United States or Europe, and thousands of Iranian scientists and engineers are expatriates in the West. A handful of U.S. government programs allow for scientific and medical research with Iranians; last year, according to Agre, 5600 young Iranian scientists had student visas to study and live in the United States. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has had an agreement to foster cooperation with the Iranian Academy since 2000, and under that agreement, some 20 seminars and workshops have been held in Iran, the United States, and occasionally in other countries, many of them facilitated by Vafai and Sharif University.
While it is more difficult for Americans to travel to Iran, Neureiter has visited three times in the past decade.
“The scientific community of Iran really does welcome engagement with the United States—there’s no doubt about it,” said Neureiter. “Many of them do come to the U.S. if they can get a visa, and the State Department is pretty good about giving visas to young Iranian scientists provided they’re not involved in highly sensitive work. And we’ve had American university professors say that the Iranians are among their very best students or post-docs.”
Both Vafai and Agre emphasized that science gives Iranian and American researchers a common language and common interests that usually transcend political conflict.
Overflow Crowds, Warm Enthusiasm
During the week in Tehran, Agre gave three key lectures:
At the National Elites Foundation, a governmental body representing highly accomplished Iranians across many fields, he talked about the role of scientific elites in society—including scientists who influenced his own scientific career. While there, the delegation met with Foundation head Saeed Sohrabpour, formerly the president of Sharif University.
At Sharif, Agre spoke about molecular channels through cell walls; his research in that field earned him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2003. An audience of some 800 people crowded into an auditorium designed to accommodate 275, with hundreds taking overflow seating outside the hall.
And at Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Agre found an enthusiastic audience for his talk about a life in public health. [He currently heads the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute.]
Neureiter spoke about international science cooperation and science diplomacy to a crowd of some 700 faculty and students at Shahid Beheshti University.
And Mary Agre spoke to the non-governmental Association of Iranian Diplomatic Wives about her experience as the spouse of a Nobel laureate. “She gave an outstanding talk,” Vafai said. “People were very impressed.” Later, she visited a Tehran girl’s school.
On a couple of occasions, the tensions between the two nations flashed into view. At one talk, professors politely expressed frustration with how Western sanctions designed to discourage Iran’s mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle were thwarting their medical research. At another, a woman with a 5-year-old son complained of atrocities committed against Iran—including the assassination of her husband, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, who had been a high-ranking researcher at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility.
Agre said that he and his wife spoke privately to the widow, offering condolence for her loss. “While this could have been confrontational,” he said, “I think our responses were sympathetic and constructive in a way that would eliminate potential animosity.”
Speaking after his return to the United States, Agre stressed that the delegation’s mission was focused on constructive science engagement. “We weren’t there to apologize or criticize,” he said. “We were there to talk about science and to find common ground.”
Overall, the delegation found a remarkably warm welcome from hundreds of scientists, science students, and government officials, plus other Iranians in all walks of life.
Vafai described university communities that treated the visitors as celebrities. Patrons of a museum were shocked to find an American Nobel laureate in their midst—and, Vafai said, eager to have their photo taken with him. One porter asked for Agre’s autograph so that he could take it home for his young daughter. At another stop, Agre spent a few minutes kicking a soccer ball with students.
While acknowledging the current challenges of Iran-U.S. relations, both Agre and Vafai expressed hope for the times ahead.
“I’m very optimistic for the future of the world,” said Vafai. “You look at young people—they have great passion, and they are the future leaders…. There is no difference between students attending Caltech and students at Sharif University—they have the same desires and aspirations.
“I believe that peace can only be achieved through education. This is something that people should place emphasis on.”
Read about past AAAS involvement in a science delegation to Iran.
Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.
Learn about Science & Diplomacy, the new quarterly publication from AAAS.