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Iran's Scientists Cautiously Reach Out to the World

By Robert Koenig
Nov. 24, 2000

TEHRAN--When Reza Mansouri left a cushy university post in Vienna to return to his native Iran in 1980, the young theoretical physicist found himself caught up in a whirlwind. In the wake of the revolution that overthrew the Shah the year before, the new "Supreme Leader"--the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini--was reinventing Iran as an Islamic republic, and talented researchers were fleeing in droves to safer and more lucrative posts abroad. Mansouri was going against the flow--an opponent of the Shah, he says he wanted "to do something for my country. Everything was in turmoil then, and science was low on the list of priorities." Along with his colleagues, Mansouri endured Iraqi rocket attacks against Sharif University of Technology, where he is a physics professor, during Iran's bloody 8-year war with Iraq in the 1980s. "Back then, people talked about 'Islamic physics' and 'Islamic science.' It took a long time for them to understand that physics is physics and science is science. But I think we're on the right track now."

Restoring an Islamic tradition? Science Minister Moin and President Khatami intend to pour more resources into research. Reza Mansouri (bottom), who returned to his homeland 20 years ago, thinks that Iran's science is finally back on track.


Today, after what one Iranian chemist describes as "20 years of frustrating trial and error," science in this politically isolated but oil-rich nation may be on the verge of resurgence. The nation's reform-minded president, Mohammad Khatami, and his allies are promising more money for R&D and are reorganizing universities to beef up graduate education and research. They are also cracking open the door to closer cooperation with scientists abroad--including those in the United States, the country Khomeini branded "the Great Satan" in 1979 when revolutionaries occupied the U.S. Embassy here, holding 52 diplomats hostage for more than a year.

Such reforms may seem basic, but Iran's government is walking a tightrope. It's pressured by hard-liners on the right who oppose reforms and by liberal university students--many of whom now glimpse the outside world via the Internet and satellite TV receivers--eager for change. Indeed, even as the hard-liners celebrated the anniversary of the embassy takeover on 3 November with their annual anti-American, flag-burning festival in the streets of Tehran, moderates were quietly working to bridge a gulf of mistrust and heal old wounds. In the first high-level visit in more than 2 decades, a U.S. delegation led by National Academy of Sciences (NAS) president, Bruce Alberts, visited Iran in September, issuing a joint statement with Iran's academy afterward, pledging to initiate six joint workshops over the next 2 years. Although that NAS visit was carefully kept out of the Iranian news media and was not sponsored by either government, Sharif University Professor Abolhassan Vafai--one of the Iranian organizers--told Science that it represented "a breakthrough."

But serious obstacles must be overcome if this budding relationship is to blossom. These range from logistical hurdles--such as the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries, making it difficult for researchers in either nation to obtain visas--to lingering disputes, including U.S. State Department allegations that Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction. The latter led to a U.S. ban on the sale of many types of scientific equipment to Iran. And looming in the background--like the five-story-high murals of Khomeini all over Tehran--is the ever-present threat of another crackdown by Iran's powerful Islamic conservatives.

Despite those barriers, interviews in Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan with three dozen Iranian scientists and university officials--many of whom earned their Ph.D.s in the United States--revealed that researchers here are eager to join the world's scientific community, even if they risk retaliation by hard-liners. "Our scientists can't work in a vacuum," says Habib Firouzabadi, president of Iran's Chemical Society and a professor at Shiraz University. Although much of Iran remains a scientific backwater today, Mansouri, who heads Iran's Physical Society, predicts that with better funding and international connections Iranian science will rise to world-class levels in fields such as math and physics within a half-century.

Deep roots

Ten centuries ago, scientists in Persia, the ancient lands that later became Iran, were light-years ahead of the rest of the world. During that Golden Age of Islam, Persian mathematicians helped complete the system of decimal fractions and made advances in algebra and trigonometry, while chemists pioneered uses of alcohol and sulfuric acid.

Although Persian mathematicians were renowned for centuries, scientists in Western Europe eventually eclipsed their Islamic counterparts. And it wasn't until the second half of the 1900s that Iran's secular government built top-notch technical universities and institutes, including Tehran's Aryamehr (now called Sharif) University of Technology--modeled in part on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--and Shiraz University, which cultivated close ties with the University of Pennsylvania. Iranian colleges sent their brightest graduate students abroad for study.

After the 1979 revolution, Sharif, Shiraz, and other universities severed ties with the West, and many top professors fled the country. One informal study found that there are now nearly twice as many Ph.D.-level Iranian-born physicists in the United States as in Iran. Although Islamic revolutionary leaders backed higher education, their emphasis was on mass education rather than "elitist" research. Science suffered most during the strife-torn 1980s, when Iran's leaders were preoccupied with restructuring the country and the war with Iraq sapped resources.

During the 1990s, Iran devoted more attention to higher education; a newly discovered oil field and the hike in world oil prices are now pumping up resources for universities and research. Today, Iran has nearly 100 government-run higher education institutions--more than four times the number of state colleges in 1978, with nearly an eightfold increase in students. Doctoral programs in natural sciences--rare before 1979--have taken root in many parts of the country. At Shiraz University, for example, Chancellor Mahmood Mostafavi says there are now about 300 Ph.D. students, versus just one in 1983.

Despite the burgeoning numbers, many Iranian scientists complain that the quality of education and research suffers because few professors have adequate time or funding. "Universities have grown like mushrooms, but they haven't redefined their goals," which should include "a major increase in resources for research," says Firouzabadi.

Another serious problem is the brain drain, which has spurred the government to find ways to keep top scholars at home. One lure is the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences, founded in 1993 in the northern city of Zanjan by one of Iran's top scientists--astrophysicist Youssef Sobouti, known for star-cluster research. Thanks largely to his center and the 12-year-old Institute for Physics and Mathematics in Tehran, Sobouti contends that "physics research, judged by publications in international journals, has improved markedly in Iran over the last 10 years." He encourages his students to make use of the Internet, foreign journals, and overseas contacts. But not every Iranian researcher has good opportunities to travel abroad or access to scientific literature. The most recent issue of Science available at Shiraz's regional science library is 6 years old.

Outside scientists tend to agree that theoretical physics and mathematics--neither of which requires much instrumentation--are Iran's healthiest disciplines. And although biology lags behind other fields, Iran gets good marks in traditional branches of chemistry. "The quality of the science I saw was quite high, and their lab equipment was better than I had expected," says Alberts. Echoing that view is Nobel laureate F. Sherwood Rowland, who visited Iran with the NAS group. "A few top universities and medical research units have first-class personnel, with equipment that's a little behind the curve but still competitive," he says. But Alberts and Rowland concede that they may have been shown only the best of what Iran has to offer.

Eroding the barriers

Iranian officials say they're committed to nurturing the best scientific centers and shoring up weak disciplines. "We want to enhance the quality of science here, increase access to the Internet, and bolster the links between universities and research centers," Iran Science Minister Mostafa Moin told Science. He says he expects to get approval for "new roles and missions" for his ministry by March, including directing a reorganization of the national research labs and the university system to promote graduate studies. Moin also notes that the government has pledged to boost R&D spending from 0.44% of the gross domestic product--about $350 million in 2000, including $25 million for basic research--to a more robust 1% over the next 5 years, with industry expected to contribute another 0.5% of GDP to research.

But the government has fallen short on similar promises in the past, skeptics say. "The pattern is that the government and parliament approve more funds for science, but the administration doesn't get that money to researchers," says Mansouri, who heads the National Research Council's basic science committee.

Meanwhile, Moin and President Khatami are encouraging Iranian scientists to strengthen ties with foreign researchers. In a speech at a meeting of the Third World Academy of Sciences here in October, Khatami said that science transcends politics and that scientific dialog could help bridge the gap between Iran and "those countries with which our relations are not totally amicable." Besides hosting the Third World Academy conference, Iran has reached out to two international efforts: It has agreed to take part in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, and plans to contribute to SESAME, a synchrotron that will be moved from Germany to Jordan as soon as funds are raised.

A grander challenge is to build research capacity within Iran. Scientists here complain that U.S. rules barring the export of technology to Iran make it extremely difficult to buy U.S.-made instruments or supplies. "Even the simplest scientific equipment for education seems to be considered 'sensitive,' " says astrophysicist Ahmad Kiasatpour of Isfahan University.

That ban continues, but the State Department has eased some restrictions on travel to Iran by U.S. researchers, and the two nations appear to be using scientists to test the waters of rapprochement. A breakthrough came in December 1998, when a U.S. delegation got permission to attend a conference in Tehran on nonrenewable energy sources. Then, after 8 months of negotiations between the Iranian and U.S. science academies--mediated by Jeremy Stone, then president of the Federation of American Scientists, and Iranian-born chemical engineer G. Ali Mansoori of the University of Illinois, Chicago--Iran in September 1999 sent a delegation to visit the NAS and scientific societies in Washington, D.C. This year's visit by the U.S. delegation was the latest in this tentative pas de deux.

Diplomatic restrictions, however, sharply limit informal research cooperation. Some U.S. scientists complain that Iran is reluctant to grant them visas; for that reason, the vast majority of scientific visits are made by Iranian-born Americans who use their Iranian passports to gain entry. Meanwhile, Iranians complain bitterly about being fingerprinted, photographed, and questioned each time they enter the United States to attend conferences. "They treat you as if you were a criminal, not a scientist," says physicist Mehdi Golshani.

Better late than never. Reza Malekzadeh is forging ties with the West to understand Iran's esophageal cancer problem.


Behind those restrictions lie U.S. suspicions that Iran is channeling resources into weapons programs. "Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile delivery systems continues unabated and has even accelerated in the last few years," contends Robert J. Einhorn, assistant U.S. secretary of state for nonproliferation. In testimony last month before a Senate panel, Einhorn aired concerns over a Russian firm's construction of a 1000-megawatt nuclear reactor in Bushehr, which will be Iran's first nuclear power station. The project, he stated, could "be used by Iran as a cover for maintaining wide-ranging contacts with Russian nuclear entities," which might prove useful for developing nuclear weapons.

Iranian officials say the Bushehr reactor is merely a power plant and deny that the country maintains efforts to build chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons--pointing out that Iran has signed treaties against proliferation. And although the Shahab missile program is an open secret, Iranians claim it is a defensive effort necessitated mainly by the threat from neighboring Iraq, which rained SCUDs on Iranian cities during the bloody 8-year war.

A long road ahead

Although science is a higher priority in today's Iran, not everyone is convinced that reforms will take root quickly--especially if the nation's hard-liners, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continue to wield ultimate power. Although the Khatami administration and parliament have become more liberal, hard-liners still control the Guardian Council, which vets proposed laws. The government has suppressed student dissent and shut down liberal newspapers. Meanwhile, a fundamentalist terrorist group--the Mujahedeen Khalq--has unleashed scattered attacks, prompting the government to assign revolutionary guards toting submachine guns to escort Third World Academy scientists on visits last month to universities and archaeological sites.

In spite of these internal tensions, Iranian scientists see growing opportunities to break out of years of isolation. Take the effort to explain northern Iran's "esophageal cancer belt," where such cancer is 10 times more common than elsewhere. Last year, Reza Malekzadeh, who heads Tehran University's new Digestive Disease Research Center, visited scientists at the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) to revive interest in cooperative research, and the NCI reciprocated recently by sending a staffer on an exploratory visit to Iran.

Early next year, one of Malekzadeh's young researchers will be a visiting fellow at NCI, learning techniques for tracking genetic links to cancer. Meanwhile, Malekzadeh and other members of Iran's medical academy have invited one of the top experts on Iran's cancer belt--University of Montreal researcher Parviz Ghadirian--to visit his homeland for the first time in 19 years to discuss collaborating.

"By working together, we might get to the bottom of this," says Malekzadeh. But, he concedes, precious years have been lost: "We should have done this long ago."


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