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Science: Eased Sanctions May Lead to Greater U.S.-Iran Science Collaboration


Lake Urmia, a shrinking salt lake in northwestern Iran, is the site of the Iranian government's largest ever environmental project.| Flickr/ Mehrad.HM/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The recent negotiations over a nuclear agreement with Iran are a significant step toward easing decades of U.S. economic sanctions against that country, and could pave the way for scientific collaboration and exchange. Science International News Editor Richard Stone travelled to Iran shortly after the negotiations in July to write about the effects of the sanctions on the country's science community, and sat down for an exclusive interview with one of the agreement's key Iranian negotiators.

In a presentation at AAAS headquarters on 3 September, Stone described his interview with Ali Akbar Salehi, president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who played a critical role in the recent negotiations. Salehi describes a very diplomatic exchange during the compromise. "Neither side got the ideal it was looking for. We met in the middle," he told Stone.

Throughout the interview, Salehi describes what was difficult to accept and what the negotiators finally agreed upon. A particularly contentious issue discussed was the type of centrifuge, a key component necessary for uranium enrichment, permitted under the agreement. Iran preferred more advanced centrifuges, but the two sides finally agreed on less advanced — and a reduced number of — centrifuges that would still meet Iran's energy needs.

Salehi said, "I thought I was going on a mission impossible. I am so happy that the final outcome made all of us happy."

During the remainder of his trip Stone talked with scientists and explored various science projects underway in Iran. "One thing that I discovered is how resourceful Iranian scientists were in the face of sanctions," Stone told the audience.

In a special Science in Iran news package, published in the 4 September issue of Science, Stone looks closely at the scientific challenges and triumphs Iran faced during international isolation over recent years. Despite these crippling limitations from the external world — and funding shortages internally — innovative science in the country persevered. Stone sheds light on the remarkable achievements of some Iranian scientists, who were restricted to generating ideas or using homespun ingenuity to create their own resources from scratch.

Stone uses the example of seismic devices, which are very important for monitoring infrastructure in the earthquake-ridden country. "There's no real safe spots, so any infrastructure has to be monitored with these seismic sensors," explained Stone. "The inability to import these sensors meant that Iran had to invent its own."

In a second story, Stone takes readers through Iran's long process to reclaim some of its past astronomical glory, in the form of the Iranian National Observatory (INO), a world-class optical telescope with a 3.4 meter (11-foot) mirror. The concept for the observatory began in the 1980s, but war, political turmoil and limited funds have taken turns interfering with the construction. But it seems the stars are finally aligning for the INO, which is currently slated for construction in the spring of 2016. Soon, the INO could be in use, hunting for dark matter and probing the intricacies of galaxy formation.

Stone also had the opportunity to visit Lake Urmia, a dying great salt lake in the northwestern Iran, near the border of Turkey. The once luscious body of water is rapidly retreating to expose a salt desert that is generating noxious dust, and threatening crops and people. Stone showed pictures of an arid white wasteland, scattered with empty piers that "go nowhere".

Much of the Lake Urmia's demise can be attributed to water management, where the three rivers that supply nearly 90% of the water flowing into Urmia have been dammed for irrigation and hydropower. An estimated 40,000 illegal wells around the lake's basin compound the problem. Stone's third story highlights the Iranian government's efforts to save Lake Urmia by launching its biggest environmental project ever, with a $6 billion price tag.

Stone's visit to Iran, interview with Salehi, and detailed reporting reveal the true impact of the economic sanctions, but also highlight the exciting scientific potential of what's to come in a more reciprocal environment.

The atmosphere seems positive, Stone noted. "Everyone I talked to (in Iran) was very optimistic about the deal."

[Credit for associated teaser image: Ebrahim Mirmalek]