Using Tea and Other Science Diplomacy Tools in Iran

On September 16, 2016, several science diplomats gathered at AAAS to discuss science diplomacy in Iran with Dennis Schroeder. Schroeder established the country office for the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Tehran in 2013 and therefore was able to share a unique perspective on relationships with Iran.

Dennis Schroeder speaks about the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Tehran at a AAAS event.  | Credit: Caitlin Jennings/AAAS

Many western countries have complicated relationships with Iran. For example, the United States and Iran do not have direct formal diplomatic relations and instead rely on other countries’ embassies. Science diplomacy can be an especially valuable tool between countries that do not have strong diplomatic relationships.

“At the end of the day, when it comes to science diplomacy, when it comes to making change,” Schroeder said, “people meeting each other and sharing ideas…get to know each other…and [they] learn a lot about the way the other thinks.” He added that that was why it was so important not just to send Iranians to Germany but to have Germans come to Iran. “The term brain drain is…highly politicized. Iran suffers from brain drain tremendously,” he said. As an organization that sends Iranians out of the country, they have to be very specific about the mutual benefits of scientific collaboration and call it more realistically “brain circulation” as the Iranian research sector benefits tremendously from expanding its international scientific network.

He also noted that the program’s success depended on focusing on academia and science, both areas that give reasons for hope, as opposed to human rights or security concerns, which remain difficult. They were able to work with government officials as well as universities to create positive change by focusing on academic exchanges. He noted that the exchanges seem especially important for women. Sixty percent of Iranian scholarship recipients are women, not because of a quota—that is just the reality in terms of the quality of submissions. “Women in Iran have to fight in order to get where they are, and that strengthens them and that gives them determination and…courage,” he said.

When asked which science diplomacy tools work and which ones don’t, Schroeder said that that was probably highly dependent on the country and culture. Despite international sanctions, the Iranians are very proud of their scientific capacity, which is embedded in Persian culture—throughout history, Persian scientists have contributed greatly to our understanding of nature, medicine, and mathematics.  Therefore, any collaboration shouldn’t be about helping them, but rather sharing and working with them on issues of mutual importance. Additionally, it’s vital to be aware of intercultural communication. For example, the words “change” and “information” have negative connotations in Iran. “Information” in particular can connote espionage.

In general, he emphasized that “absolute transparency was crucial, absolutely crucial, to the trust building process.” He also noted that one of the best ways to build trust was to engage extensively with government officials with tea and cookies in order to get to know each other on a personal level.

Dennis Schroeder and Marga Gual Soler 

Marga Gual Soler, a Project Director at the Center for Science Diplomacy, said, “Dennis’ positive experiences in Iran demonstrate the importance of establishing trust and building cross-cultural understanding to overcome negative stereotypes and ideologies. Academic and scientific mobility is crucial for countries to work together and learn from each other to tackle shared challenges, even under political strain.”

Schroeder also wrote a piece about his experience in Science & Diplomacy. Read the piece, “Between Intention and Serendipity,” and share your thoughts on this issue on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Trellis