Iran Nuclear Deal
Representatives from China, France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announce the framework of the Iran nuclear deal in April 2015. Credit: U.S. Department of State

Looking Forward to 2016

United States Iran Americas Broader Middle East and North Africa

Science & Diplomacy has in a few short years become an important vehicle for communicating the history and future potential of science and technology helping to advance diplomacy and to create a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous world. I have been greatly impressed with what Vaughan Turekian, Tom Wang, and Caitlin Jennings have been able to accomplish with this journal. It is an honor and pleasure for me to take over as editor-in-chief now that Vaughan has become science and technology adviser to the U.S. secretary of state. Tom and Caitlin will continue to have their key roles with the journal, and Tom has even greater responsibilities as the new chief international officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publisher of Science & Diplomacy) and director of the AAAS center for Science Diplomacy. We will do our best to continue building the record of Science & Diplomacy by publishing high quality articles that explore the many aspects of the relationship between science and diplomacy.

What scientific engagement can accomplish in helping to build bridges between countries can take many years to bear fruit. As this is my first editorial, I want to highlight the efforts that have continued over fifteen years to strengthen science collaboration between the United States and Iran. With the nuclear deal almost in force after caustic debates in the United States and Iran, it might be surprising to the general public to learn that for the past fifteen years both countries have encouraged cooperation between their scientists. Workshops and exchanges of high scientific quality on topics of mutual benefit have continued uninterrupted even with different administrations and overall hostile relations. 

The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have organized many of these activities with leading scientific institutions in Iran, including the Academy of Sciences of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Sharif University of Technology. Scientists have worked together to address important issues in areas such as geosciences, water management, biodiversity, food-borne diseases, ecology, environmental management, and earthquake mitigation. Iranian scientists have specialized expertise on a number of important topics including earthquake engineering, stem cells, esophageal cancer, arid land agriculture, climate change, and contagious diseases. The most recent publication from this cooperation is the proceedings entitled “U.S.-Iran Symposium on Resilient Cities” from a conference in June in Irvine, California, sponsored by the University of Arizona, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and Sharif University of Technology.

Scientists from American universities and scientific institutions participating in these workshops in the United States, Iran, and other countries have been impressed with the quality of Iranian scientists. Their expertise in certain scientific fields and regional locations has been very useful for U.S. scientists. All Americans, including myself on trips to Iran in 2000 and 2007, have been treated well and warmly in these dialogues. In my view this scientific cooperation, documented by Glenn Schweitzer in his book U.S.-Iran Engagement in Science, Engineering, and Health (2000-2009) (now being updated), has increased fundamental knowledge, benefited American science, and benefited the people of both countries.

What have I learned from this non-nuclear scientific cooperation with Iran? Iran is a country where its people highly value education and science and where there are many highly competent scientists and engineers and top quality universities. Iran has an entrepreneurial culture, an increasing number of high-tech companies and start-ups, and technological expertise that has advanced even under the sanctions regime. The Iranian scientists and institutions that we have interacted with are eager to engage more deeply with the U.S. scientific community. Nevertheless, there are many powerful forces in the Iranian government and society that are opposed to improved relations between the two countries.

I have been involved in scientific cooperation with many countries, including promoting and participating in extensive scientific collaboration between the United States and Israel. Scientists from Iran and Israel have even cooperated recently on certain scientific projects such as SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East), which is being built in Jordan. Science collaboration is not intended to resolve complex diplomatic problems nor is it able to do so, but maintaining scientific cooperation even in difficult times can be beneficial. This rationale is likely one reason, in addition to the gains in scientific knowledge, why the U.S. and Iranian governments have supported this science cooperation. 

The last forty years have produced several examples—the Soviet Union, China, Cuba—where the United States has maintained some level of science cooperation even during periods of strained governmental relations. When “windows of opportunity” have emerged in diplomatic relations, these science collaborations have been of significant benefit. This has been true in the nuclear agreement with Iran as well. The broad Iranian scientific community knows that if their country should violate the nuclear agreement, the positive future that they seek in science collaboration with the United States will come to naught. This constituency—which the Iranian government knows is important to the future of Iran—will be a strong counterweight to the forces in Iran that are opposed to the nuclear agreement and engagement with the United States.

This agreement with Iran, which includes provisions for increased scientific cooperation between the two countries, has even shown—through the efforts of Ernest Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi—that scientists can be excellent contributors at the highest level for reaching closure in complex diplomatic negotiations. The “under the radar” scientific cooperation in non-nuclear areas between the United States and Iran over the past fifteen years has also been a contributor.

I have just returned from a regional forum on “science and technology diplomacy” in Amman, Jordan, that was sponsored by CRDF Global and the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan. The participants were from Arab countries in the region as well as from the United States and Europe. I learned a lot from the dialogue, and I had an opportunity to visit SESAME and hear of research opportunities from an Egyptian woman scientist.

While participants had different interpretations of “science diplomacy,” there was universal agreement on the importance of science capacity building in the region and the value of international scientific collaboration. The next World Science Forum will be held in Amman in 2017. As we look to the challenges facing the world in 2016, I believe that supporting scientific collaboration and capacity building in the Middle East should be one of our highest priorities for utilizing science to advance diplomacy.

International Research and Large Scale Infrastructures National Approaches Relationship Building Science for Diplomacy Science in Diplomacy