Iranian scientists persevere under renewed sanctions

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Physics Today 72, 1, 22 (2019)

The greatest impact on science and society comes from the devaluation of currency.  Toni Feder

If you ask scientists in Iran, they are likely to say that not much changed for them professionally when the US pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last May and then renewed sanctions this past fall. Many will also tell you that the nuclear deal itself—signed in 2015, with sanctions lifted beginning in January 2016—did not lead to significant improvements. “We have learned to live and work in difficult conditions,” says Ali Akbar Saboury of the Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Tehran. Saboury recalls the eight-year Iran–Iraq War, which ended in a stalemate in 1988 after hundreds of thousands of Iranians and Iraqis had lost their lives. As for the current sanctions, he says, “we continue our research.”Still, the anticipation of reduced restrictions did spark hope among scientists that they could participate more easily and fully in the international scientific community. And steps were taken in that direction. The effects of the renewed sanctions are tangled up with visa restrictions, with ongoing political uncertainties in the country, and with the free fall of Iran’s currency, the rial, which last year alone plunged by more than two-thirds. “The bitter fact is that our policymakers on both sides have chosen to confront each other rather than move toward a sober and friendly cooperation,” says astrophysicist Yousef Sobouti, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences in Zanjan.In pulling out of the JCPOA, President Trump called it a “horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.” He said that the nuclear deal’s restrictions should be permanent to prevent Iran from eventually obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran and the other signatories—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK—remain in the deal.


Robots that aid the sick and elderly are being designed at the University of Tehran; the next version is scheduled to come out in February. Such work proceeds despite the difficulties, under sanctions, of obtaining parts and exchanging know-how.UNIVERSITY OF TEHRAN


Less than three years elapsed between the adoption of the nuclear accord and the US pullout. “It was not enough time to bear fruit,” says Nasser Kalantar, a Dutch physicist originally from Iran. “And in that short period, not all restrictions were lifted.” Moreover, he notes, subconscious bias against Iranians is widespread. “And the sanctions affect daily life of scientists in Iran on all fronts.”Nonetheless, during the brief thaw, suppliers of laboratory equipment and consumable materials reopened offices in Iran, and new suppliers began entering the market, says Mohammad Reza Ejtehadi of Sharif University of Technology and president of the Physics Society of Iran. Although international financial transactions were not always straightforward, for a time it was easier to buy equipment, subscribe to journals, contribute to joint international endeavors, and the like.Abdol-Khalegh Bordbar is a biophysical chemist at the University of Isfahan. His university purchased instruments for nanoscience and other experiments, including for NMR, fluorescence, electron microscopy, dynamic light scattering, and x-ray diffraction. The timing was fortunate, he says, because with the renewal of US sanctions, such things can no longer be easily bought or repaired. The sanctions also make it difficult for other countries to sell to Iran. “You have to buy chemicals on the black market for a high price,” Bordbar says.Brain drain from Iran has been increasing for more than a decade, says Reza Mansouri, a physicist at Sharif University of Technology and a former deputy minister for research. He estimates that 80% of bachelor’s students from Sharif leave the country, and he puts that percentage at 90% for physics students. “Fewer than 10% come back after a decade,” he says. But after the signing of the JCPOA, notes Ejtehadi, there was an uptick in scientists returning to work in Iran.The nuclear deal led to an increase in the flow of visiting scientists to and from Iran and to new informal and official collaborations. For example, negotiations began for Iran to join the international Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR) under construction in Darmstadt, Germany. “They would have to build parts in Iran and ship them to Germany. There is nothing nuclear about it—it would be shielding material,” says Kalantar, who works on the project. The German government hasn’t officially stopped the collaboration, but it’s on hold, he says.After the nuclear accord, as many as 200 delegations came to Iran, mostly from Europe but also from Asia and the US, to pursue collaborations in such areas as agriculture, medical science, physics, and engineering, says Mansouri. But only a few new collaborations have shaped up. He estimates that out of some 100 000 researchers in Iran, about 10% seek international research partners. Despite decades of tense political relations, Iranian scientists have many joint publications with scientists around the world, with the US topping the list (see the figure on page 24). The number of successful international collaborations will decrease due to the new sanctions, he says. “Collaborations need money, and it’s impossible to transfer.” Even when money isn’t a problem, he adds, “[international] colleagues fear they may be pressured by the US in the future.”


Abdol-Khalegh Bordbar in his office at the University of Isfahan. The biophysical chemist notes that sanctions and associated difficulties force scientists to become creative.ABDOL-KHALEGH BORDBA

As an example of US pressure, Iranian and European scientists point to rules first implemented in 2015, whereby people who have visited Iran in the past five years must apply for a visa to enter the US even if they are citizens of countries that do not usually need a visa. That law, says Ejtehadi, limits scientific collaboration between Europe and Iran. “Some scientists who had planned to come to Iran for international conferences or to visit their colleagues canceled their trip because of this restriction.”“Some European colleagues are against the sanctions and the American policies, and they make the extra effort,” says Kalantar. “But a lot of people, even if they want to help, don’t want to go through the hassles” of applying for visas and risking future entry to the US. And even though the European Union is encouraging companies to continue activities in Iran, they pull out so as not to risk their typically much more profitable interactions with the US.“We have had very rewarding collaborations with Iran,” says the head of one of Europe’s synchrotron light sources who requested anonymity. “We are open to everybody. And at this moment, such openness can cause problems for future collaborations with US companies and research institutions. It is really worrisome.”Javad Rahighi, who heads the Iranian Light Source Facility, which is in the early R&D stage, says that he and his colleagues “feel that most laboratories in Europe are less willing to work with us” since the US renewed sanctions. In a mistake apparently related to the sanctions, in early November he was stopped in Copenhagen and held for two days. (See “Iranian physicist erroneously detained in Denmark,” 26 December 2018Physics Today online.)


Iran is the 12th leading country of origin for international postsecondary students in the US, according to the Institute of International Education. For the 2017–18 academic year, there were 12 783. That was a 1.1% increase over the previous year in the US but a reduction in the overall fraction of Iranian students who went abroad. Returning home during studies can be difficult because of the trouble and expense of reentering the US; many students have single-entry visas, and with no US embassy in Iran, they have to visit a third country to apply for a new visa. Occasionally students and other academics have been detained or jailed in Iran (see “Iran releases physicist after five-year imprisonment,” 30 August 2016Physics Today online).The travel ban implemented by the US in early 2017 exempts students but not faculty. For Iranians at the faculty level, getting into the US has been difficult for decades, says Ejtehadi. “It’s always been expensive and time consuming. The possibility of rejection reduces the desire to visit the US.”Travel from the US to Iran can also be tricky. The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has in some cases advised against visiting Iran. And US universities may discourage faculty members from traveling there. Statistics are not available, but Mansouri and others say that the number of visiting scientists to Iran has dropped since last spring.The renewed US sanctions explicitly allow Chinese and Russian entities to continue working with the Iranians on the Arak heavy-water reactor facility and Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, as required under the JCPOA. The Arak reactor core is being converted to produce less weapons-usable plutonium, and the Fordow centrifuge is being modified to use for medical isotope production and research. But it is unclear whether a nuclear safety center that Europeans were working on in Iran can go forward, says Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, a think tank in Washington, DC. Discontinuing the center would reduce opportunities for scientific cooperation, she says. “Cutting off scientific cooperation, particularly in the nuclear space, decreases transparency into Iran’s nuclear program and its future trajectory.”


Joint publications in international scientific journals in 2017 by authors in Iran with scientists in other countries. (Based on data from the Web of

Overly vigorous interpretation of the sanctions exacerbates their negative impact on Iranian society and science. Some scientists, for example, report that their manuscripts are rejected by international journals because they come from Iran. Similarly, some companies stopped offering online courses in Iran and others cut off access to free scientific software.“Sanctions create paranoia,” says Kaveh Madani, an environmental management expert at Yale University. “Some academic people and institutions want to follow the rules and they become more Catholic than the pope, hurting scientific exchanges and progress.”Sanctions also facilitate corruption, Madani says. “They create opportunities for people close to power to make money.” He has experienced firsthand the political dangers in his native Iran. In 2017 he left his faculty position at Imperial College London to serve as Iran’s deputy minister for the environment. A few months into the job, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards accused him of spying. After being repeatedly arrested and interrogated, he fled the country.Madani says that sanctions harm natural resources and human health. In the economic recession resulting from sanctions, he says, decision makers focus on crisis management “with no attention to the impacts on the environment.” During a gas shortage, for example, the government made low-quality refineries to produce gas. People could drive, but air pollution increased, he says. “The effects can be irreversible and long term. You can’t put water back into aquifers. You can’t undo cancers.”


Even more than the sanctions themselves, Iranian scientists point to the devaluation of their currency as hampering their research and integration in the international science community. After getting her undergraduate degree in Iran, Rezvan Shahoei applied to more than a dozen US graduate programs before going to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2010 to pursue a doctorate in physics. Today students can’t afford to apply to so many programs, she says. Paying for the GRE and TOEFL exams has become hard. Combined with the travel impediments, Iranian students are turning increasingly to other countries or staying home.


Scientific exchanges and the building of an Iranian beamline at the Elettra synchrotron were discussed at a November 2016 meeting in Trieste, Italy. Plans for the beamline are now on hold because of the reduced value of Iranian currency. From left: Iranian physicist Reza Mansouri; Vahid Ahmadi, Iran’s deputy minister for research and technology; Italian politician Debora Serracchiani; Alfonso Franciosi, head of the Elettra synchrotron; and Javad Rahighi, director of the Iranian Light Source Faci

Shahoei tells of a physicist in Iran whose relatively good salary is now equivalent to roughly $400 a month. The devaluation of the currency means that scientists can no longer afford to attend international conferences. And the weakened rial makes buying lab equipment, already tough due to the renewed sanctions, even more out of reach.Some 14 Iranian scientists attended a school on plasma physics this past October in Trieste, Italy, held jointly by the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics and the International Atomic Energy Agency. “Only a few canceled. But we saw a lot of desperate people who were out of money,” says Joseph Niemela, who coordinated the school. “We won’t expect Iranian scientists to chip into the cost of participating in future events,” he adds.The devaluation of currency is also delaying completion of large projects such as the Iranian Light Source Facility and a beamline that Iranian scientists hope to build at the Elettra synchrotron facility near Trieste. But a 3.4-meter telescope is going ahead, says Mansouri. “The government has decided to support the Iranian National Observatory.” It’s about half paid for and is on track to be completed in a few years. The roughly $10 million to finish the observatory “is peanuts compared to government spending in universities, so it’s not much influenced by the sanctions or our economic situation,” he says.If there is a bright side to the difficult conditions for science in Iran, it’s that people are putting their ingenuity to work. In some ways research may benefit, says Bordbar. “We find solutions inside the country. People produce startup companies. We change the way we do research to fill gaps. The difficulties encourage creativity and independence.” Says Mansouri, “I expect that the new sanctions will help us rethink what we as a nation want.”Inside and outside of Iran there is wide recognition that the benefits of international collaborations extend well beyond science. Engaging with scientists all over the world and contributing to scientific progress “can help to achieve more political stability in this region,” says Rahighi.“Science suffers in isolation,” says Niemela. “It becomes a closed pool, and crazy ideas can grow in such a medium. I don’t think that is ultimately in anybody’s interest.” Astrophysicist Sobouti agrees, but says for the situation to improve, “we have to sit and wait.”

  1. © 2019 American Institute of Physics.

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