Skip to main content

Top Experts Visit AAAS to Explore Role for Science Diplomacy in Building Iran-U.S. Relations

With tensions escalating between Iran and members of the United Nations Security Council, continuing and even expanding current scientific exchanges in appropriate fields may help keep lines of communication open and build constructive engagement, Iran experts agreed in recent talks at AAAS.

President Barack Obama has expressed a desire for more constructive engagement with Iran, and the U.S. National Academies and the National Institutes of Health are among the organizations which are continuing to work with Iranian researchers. And while Iran has cracked down on some Iranians with ties to the United States, it also has welcomed delegations of U.S. scientists and engineers and continues to allow some researchers and students to work and study in the West.

Speakers during the 2 December discussion at AAAS seemed to agree that such engagement based first and foremost on advancing science could have the additional benefit of helping build broader relationships with Iran—but that exchanges are likely to have limited impact at a time of sharp conflict resulting from contentious issues such as nuclear ambitions, human rights, and an atmosphere of deep mistrust that has built over half a century.


Glenn Schweitzer | Photo by Benjamin Somers

“What we need is a signal from the two governments that endorses scientific exchanges,” said Glenn Schweitzer,” director of Eurasian Programs for the National Academies. “I’m sure this won’t happen tomorrow, but we could work step-by-step toward an S&T agreement like we have with 50 countries around the world.”


While that view attracted support, other speakers suggested that science engagement cannot be separated from the broader context of disagreements with Iran.


Sara Horner | Photo by Benjamin Somers

“We certainly have looked at ways we can cooperate,” said Sara Horner, deputy director of the Iran Office in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. “I think the consensus is that we’re willing to do that, but we really need some progress on the nuclear front before we can go into discussion of potential areas of cooperation.”


The 2 December event was organized by the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. In addition to Horner and Schweitzer, panelists were Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and Richard Nephew, Middle East Team Chief in the Office of Regional Affairs in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the State Department. The audience included a number of other influential Iran experts from government, NGOs and academia.


Vaughan Turekian | Photo by Benjamin Somers

Vaughan Turekian, AAAS chief international officer and director of the Center for Science Diplomacy, moderated the 90-minute discussion. It was the Center’s second public event on Iran this year, and came at a time when news reports suggest that Iran and the U.N. Security Council, along with other interested parties, are moving closer to a potential collision, with the conflict being played out now through warnings of further economic sanctions, long-range missile tests, and veiled threats of military intervention.


“This issue of engaging Iran and the way in which a relationship with Iran might evolve over the next few months to years is actually one that is a concern at the highest level of the U.S. government and the global community,” said Turekian. The panel was convened “to really begin to get a feel for… how science can play a role in a constructive engagement strategy over the near term and the long term.”

Advocates see science diplomacy as a critical approach to building and maintaining relations between nations, especially where government ties are profoundly strained or broken. Science delegations led by AAAS President Peter C. Agre, a Nobel Laureate in chemistry, have visited Cuba and North Korea this fall, and the AAAS Science Diplomacy Center and its partners are building S&T ties with China, Vietnam, Syria, and Rwanda, along with the European Union and others.

The Challenge of Iran’s Nuclear Program


Richard Nephew | Photo by Benjamin Somers

The conflict over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has dominated the headlines in recent years, and though Iran has insisted that it is seeking only a new source of energy, Nephew, in his presentation, said there is much to suggest this is not the case. “To put it very simply, the (nuclear research) program is continuing and it’s making a number of advances,” he said. “The activities that Iran is engaging in right now are the same kinds of activities that at some point down the road could facilitate its ability to produce nuclear weapons.”


Though there are indications that Iran at one point had suspended its weaponization program and may have slowed its research as a signal of interest in engaging, Nephew asserted that Iran has made continuing advances in nuclear science and long-range missile development. Discovery of a small, undisclosed nuclear construction site at Qom adds further to the suspicion, he said. [The concern was underscored by news reports in mid-December that Iran as recently as 2007 was working on a “neutron initiator,” a device designed to set off the explosion in a nuclear bomb. Iran subsequently said the reports were inaccurate and based on forged documents.]

Iran now has 1800 kilograms of enriched uranium, and if that’s enriched further, it’s “well in excess” of the amount needed for one nuclear bomb, Nephew said. At the same time, it has continued to build a heavy-water research reactor at Arak and to fabricate fuel for that reactor.

“That’s a reactor that could at some point produce plutonium for use in weapons,” he explained. “So at this point… the program is moving headlong toward nuclear weapon material production capabilities on both the uranium side and the plutonium side.”

And while Iran has made public offers to negotiate and has allowed inspectors from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency limited access to the Qom site, it has largely failed to move forward on its stated offers, Nephew said.

This nuclear posture and resistance to negotiation may be intentional, Nephew said; it may also reflect confusion in the Iranian system about the nation’s options, or infighting and instability among Iranian power centers.

Iran’s Profound Suspicion of the West


Suzanne Maloney | Photo by Benjamin Somers

But that ultimately may be impossible to read. Iran today is convulsed by a struggle over the character of the nation that is unprecedented since the 1979 Islamic revolution—with much of the fight is taking place behind a curtain, said Maloney, the influential Brookings scholar who formerly served in the State Department.


“There’s a higher degree of opacity about the internal situation than there has been perhaps at any time since the early days of the revolution,” Maloney told the AAAS audience. “We simply don’t know precisely what’s going on in Iran at any given time. This particular moment is one of a great degree of flux, even for Iranians.”

The uprising of Iranian reform advocates to protest the results of last June’s election has signaled that many among the Iranian people are ready for democracy, she said, and that in turn has provoked a “long-term crisis” and opened a “catastrophic” division between the people and nation’s rulers. She noted significant divisions in the political and clerical community, as well, and suggested that in Iran today may be less an Islamic state than a military government held together by the strong hand of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The uncertainty and flux makes every U.S. policy decision regarding Iran still more difficult, Maloney said.

In such a difficult environment, Nephew said, low-key scientific exchanges may allow some de-politicized communication on the nuclear issue, for example. Horner, too, said the State Department plans to continue its limited scientific engagement with Iran.

But both she and Maloney suggested that even at the current scale, such exchanges are more fragile now, and more dangerous, because in some cases the Iranian government or security forces have targeted scientists and scholars who are working with counterparts in the West.

“What they’ve made clear is that nobody is safe,” said Maloney. “It is the international community which the hardliners very deeply, profoundly, truly believe has been plotting a coup against their regime—and anyone who has any contact with the international community is ultimately suspect. And almost anything we do at this particular moment… would endanger any of our partners on the Iranian side.”

Horner agreed. “While we will continue the exchange programs that we have,” she added, “certainly we have been looking at that and how to move forward on our Iran programming money because we don’t want anyone’s lives to be jeopardized. And they are at risk at this moment.”

Quietly, Iranian-U.S. Science Engagement Goes On

And yet, in spite of the tensions, engagement does continue, some through the government and other through academic and research centers. And virtually all of it is under the radar of policy debates and news coverage.

The State Department is quietly pursuing women’s rights engagement, Horner said. Alex Dehgan, a senior adviser in the office of the science adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, described how a group of Iranian physicians met with doctors in the Southern United States to share some rural health care reforms that had been effective in their home province of Shiraz. [Dehgan has been closely involved in U.S. policy in Iraq and Iran and has worked in Afghanistan, but was speaking on a personal basis as a scientist and a former AAAS S&T Policy Fellow at the AAAS meeting and not for the State Department.]

Judy Levin, program officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Institute of Health’s Fogarty International Center, said that Iranians are a significant bloc from the Middle East among the 2800 foreign postdocs on the campus. And NIH funds a number of projects with U.S. and Iranian scientists, she said.

“These are really significant and sustained scientific collaborations,” Levin said. “The reason it works is because we don’t do engagement and we don’t do diplomacy—we do science…. We believe, and we hear from our Iranian colleagues, that this is one of the reasons why it’s somewhat safer for these relationships to be started and to continue. And we’ve had even very recent experiences that have been quite public, quite visible, and the individuals who have gone back to senior positions haven’t been spirited away or had their relatives harassed or anything like that. On the contrary, in a recent example, an individual has actually gotten a promotion in his university.”

Schweitzer said the programs at the National Academies had had similar experiences. He was on one of two delegations of U.S. scientists and engineers and university leaders that visited Iran late last year, where they mostly found a warm reception by from Iranian leaders in science and medicine, as well as the staff of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But Schweitzer was temporarily detained in his hotel room by security services during that trip. At the same time, he noted that 50 Iranians researchers were expelled from the United States in 2005 while on a trip to California. While the scientific and engineering meetings with Iranian researchers are continuing, he said, in 2009 the activities of the academies were held outside Iran.

“This is Not a Foreign Assistance Program”

He described a collaboration on disease surveillance in Iran that has led to improved health care there, and a recent meeting on seismic research and a publication of the proceedings that included a number of good research articles.

Since Iran’s disputed elections in June, “we’ve had three workshops involving more than 25 Iranians from 10 different institutions,” Schweitzer told the audience at AAAS. “This is not a foreign assistance program. This is not just simply a theoretical exchange. It’s been, at least our piece of it, a program with benefits both to the United States and Iran.”

An additional benefit, Schweitzer said, is that such exchanges help Iranians and Americans to better understand one another. “We’ve sent four Nobel laureates to Iran—the reception was unbelievable. They not only spoke to hundreds and hundreds of students, but on an internet service that goes out to other major universities around the country…. So that’s improving the image of the United States among thousands Iranians—I bet the number is even larger.”

Dehgan, a former AAAS S&T Policy Fellow, struck a similar chord. “Science diplomacy undermines this idea that the United States is trying to keep science from the Iranians, which is the argument [made by Iranian leadership] on the nuclear debate,” he said.

Norman P. Neureiter

Norman P. Neureiter, senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, urged that the United States look to the past for insight on the future value of science engagement with Iran. Neureiter is a veteran of science diplomacy; during the administration of President Richard Nixon, he worked to craft science and technology agreements with the Soviet Union and China, and he served as science adviser to Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell from 2000-2003. He has visited Iran several times, and was on one of the 2007 delegations.

During the Cold War, Neureiter said, the Soviet Union and the United States each had thousands of nuclear warheads poised to destroy each other within 20 minutes. And yet the Nixon administration pushed through a science agreement with the Soviets, despite intense opposition in Congress and the Pentagon. In that same year (1972), Nixon also proposed to the Chinese closer cooperation in science and technology along with the breakthrough political agreement. While he was out of office by the time that science cooperation with China was fully implemented, the constructive impact of that initiative is still being felt, he said.

“I still remember our office hosting the first Chinese visitors in their Mao suits on the 8th floor at the State Department,” he said. Those activities started small, but “built into programs which now bring some 90,000 Chinese students to this country each year, many of whom later return to China. They have become an important basis for science cooperation with China.

“There’s invariably opposition to such cooperation because it’s perceived that one is going to give too much away,” Neureiter continued. “But the United States is no longer really No. 1 in all sciences…. There’s a lot of good science going on around the world and we believe very strongly here at AAAS that we should be interacting globally as much as possible.”

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.