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National Academies Visit Iran

Science diplomacy mission included USC College professor Thomas Jordan.

By Carl Marziali
December 1, 2007

National Academies Visit Iran

Acting in their role as “advisers to the nation,” the National Academies recently sponsored a low-key but far-reaching visit to Iran by a dozen American scientists.

The purpose of the visit was to foster scientific exchange and improve communication between the American and Iranian scientific communities.

The delegation included Thomas Jordan, University Professor and holder of the William M. Keck Foundation Chair in Geological Sciences in USC College, an advocate of “science diplomacy” who sits on the 12-member governing council of the National Academies and serves on its international affairs committee.

“We came away with the feeling that there should be a lot more dialogue between these two societies and, frankly, between the two governments,” Jordan said.

“The problems that unite us are a lot bigger than the problems that divide us.”

Jordan listed many similarities between Los Angeles and Tehran, including water shortages, earthquake risks, rising population and air quality issues.

The 10-day trip was the first to Iran by an official National Academies delegation in seven years and was disclosed publicly only after its conclusion. It was endorsed by the U.S. Department of State and the Treasury Department.

The delegates exchanged views on science, religion and politics with former President Mohammad Khatami, Grand Ayatollah and university President Mousavi Aderbili, Vice President for Science Sadegh Vaez-Zadeh and several other leading scientists, clerics and politicians.

The American and Iranian participants agreed to pursue several concrete projects, including:

  • an exchange of science policy specialists between the National Academies and Sharif University, Iran’s premier technical university.

  • the continuation of annual workshops on scientific issues of mutual interest. The next workshop, in early 2008, will focus on reducing earthquake damage to unreinforced masonry structures.

  • an ongoing dialogue on practical means for using science to move away from confrontation and toward understanding. The dialogue will cover topics such as biological research and applications of nanotechnology but not nuclear power.

“We were told there is a strong consensus on their nuclear program at all [governmental] levels, and it appeared to be true,” Jordan said.

The visit received wide positive coverage in the Iranian media, raising the possibility of a political dividend for Iran’s rulers.

Was Jordan worried that the visit would be exploited for public relations purposes?

“I was hoping it would be,” he said. “We were well aware of the possibility of being used in that way, but I think we very much want to be used in a positive way, in the sense that there is almost nothing happening in terms of diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran right now.

“So to the extent that we are providing a conduit for information, knowledge and understanding about these two societies, we want to play that role. We’re going to play that role.”

During meetings and walking tours in Tehran, Shiraz and the holy city of Qom, the delegates and their hosts discussed a range of sensitive issues.

On the relationship between science and religion, Aderbili suggested that any apparent contradiction between the two resulted from a misunderstanding.

“Nobody was arguing that these things were in conflict,” Jordan said. “A surprising number of the political leaders have Ph.D.s, often in engineering, or science or mathematics.

“Many of them got their degrees in the United States,” he said, though adding that the number of Iranian students at American universities has dropped dramatically in recent years.

On women’s rights, the delegates were surprised to find women in the majority among graduate students in several science and engineering departments. University admission is a meritocracy based on strict examination requirements, the delegates were told.

“The role of women in society is a big issue for them,” Jordan said.

While walking, the delegates came across curious onlookers, female and male, who greeted the visitors, took group photos and swapped e-mail addresses.

“It is easy to see the tensions between religion and modern society in Tehran,” Jordan said. “There’s a constant negotiation going on between the more rigid views of how society should operate and the reality of how it’s actually operating.”

On the environment, one cleric expressed ambivalence about protective legislation such as the Endangered Species Act, saying it would need to be reconciled with Islamic thinking that assigns humankind priority over other species.

“It was very interesting to talk with leaders about these common problems and how we might actually work together to solve them,” Jordan said.

Joshua Fouts, executive director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, called exchange programs one of the most effective tools in any government’s diplomacy arsenal. Even so, he said, “governments far underfund this critical part of our foreign policy apparatus.”

“In a single day, we spend more fighting wars than we spend on preventing them in an entire year,” Fouts said, comparing the government’s public diplomacy budget to the annual outlay of the Department of Defense.

“What they [the National Academies] are doing is a critical part of nonprofit diplomacy, where foundations are funding efforts to facilitate dialogue between disparate cultures.”

The Richard Lounsbery Foundation provided partial financial support for the visit and sent its executive director, Maximillian Angerholzer, with the delegation.

The other delegates were William Wulf, president emeritus of the National Academy of Engineering; Michael Clegg, foreign secretary of the National Academy of Sciences; Anita Jones, NAE member; Joseph Taylor, Nobel laureate in physics at Princeton University; E. William Colglazier, NAS executive officer and National Research Council chief operating officer; Norman Neureiter, director of the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Glenn Schweitzer, director of the Office for Central Europe and Eurasia in the National Research Council; Catherine Colglazier, humanities division manager at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va.; and Amy Moore, program associate in the National Research Council.