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.
CREDITS: R. KOENIG
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
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.
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
Better late than never. Reza Malekzadeh is forging ties with the West
to understand Iran's esophageal cancer problem.
CREDIT: R. KOENIG
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
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."