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AAAS Delegation Makes “Positive” Visit to Iran

A small delegation led by Nobel laureate and former AAAS President Peter Agre delivered a series of lectures and met with Iranian science leaders, researchers, and students during a week-long science diplomacy visit to Tehran.

Although the visit came at a time of tension centered on Iran’s disputed nuclear research and tightening Western economic sanctions, the presentations and meetings focused on shared interests in research and building a dialogue based on science. And, Agre said, the Americans were warmly received.

“Overall, it was a very positive visit,” said Agre, the 2009 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.”

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Landmark of learning. Avicenna Tower at Sharif University of Technology is named for the influential Persian polymath who lived a thousand years ago.
[Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ M. Samadi]

The delegation was invited and hosted by Nasrin Soltankhah, Iran’s vice president for science and technology. 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.

Traveling with Agre were his 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 Science & Diplomacy, AAAS’s new online quarterly. While in Iran from 6-13 June, they spoke at elite universities and civic organizations and met with top government and science policy officials, scholars, and students.

The delegation also was invited to 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 the belief that knowledge produced by research should benefit all of humanity.

While in Iran, Agre was named an honorary member of the Sharif University faculty and given an office there; he agreed to return every year for 10 days of lectures and other scholarly activity.

Support for science diplomacy by AAAS and others worldwide is based, at least in part, on a basic principle: Common scientific interests and joint research can create engagement and build trust between nations even when governmental relations are strained or broken.

Iran has an accomplished science sector, with focus areas including medical and stem cell research, petroleum engineering, space exploration, and nanotechnology. Many of Iran’s science policy leaders and university faculty members were educated in the United States or Europe, and 5600 young Iranian scientists last year had student visas to live in the United States while studying in non-sensitive fields. Scientific research has provided a continuing basis for Iran-U.S. engagement. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences since 2000 has had an agreement to foster cooperation with the Iranian Academy, and some 20 seminars and workshops have been held in Iran, the United States, and occasionally other countries.

After the AAAS delegation returned, Neureiter discussed the Iran trip during an hour-long look at science diplomacy on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, on WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C. [Listen to the archived show at http://www.aaas.org/go/kojo/].