Despite a sour political climate, some U.S. scientists continue to be involved in efforts to restore Iran’s vanishing Lake Urmia.

Abraham Mirmalek

Pall hangs over U.S.-Iran science ties

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Rising tensions between the U.S. and Iranian governments have frozen most scientific contacts between the two nations, experts reported at a forum here last week.

Long at the vanguard of efforts to broker ties between Iranian and U.S. scientists, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) has mothballed its highly praised, 16-year-old engagement program, Glenn Schweitzer, director of NAS’s office for Central Europe and Eurasia, stated at a forum hosted by the Atlantic Council. That’s a huge blow to science diplomacy with Iran, as the academy’s program since its inception has accounted for more than half of all participants in U.S.-Iran science engagement activities—some 1500 scientists from 120 institutions—according to an NAS report released on Friday that summarizes the program’s activities from 2010 to 2016.

Iran and the United States do not have diplomatic relations, and as a result scientific ties have waxed and waned often in concert with the levels of hostility expressed by the two governments toward each other. Science engagement efforts were gaining momentum in 2015 and in early 2016, after the Iran nuclear deal was signed and came into effect. But President Donald Trump’s administration’s efforts this year to restrict travel from Iran and five other Muslim-majority nations prompted Iran to retaliate by tightening its visa policy for U.S. citizens. Also casting a pall is Iran’s imprisonment of several U.S. citizens, including Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American graduate student in history at Princeton University sentenced in July by Iran’s judiciary to 10 years in jail over accusations of espionage.

Heightening the uncertainty, the Trump administration has consistently articulated its disdain for the nuclear deal; Trump and others have suggested that the U.S. government may declare Iran out of compliance with the nuclear deal at a 3-month review next month, despite assurances from other signatories and from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is abiding by the deal’s terms. The prospect of the nuclear deal unraveling has further imperiled people-to-people ties between the United States and Iran, including science.

“Can these programs contribute to breaking the downward spiral? So far they haven’t. Let’s not fool ourselves,” says John Limbert, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and a veteran diplomat who was held captive at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days, from 1979 to 1981. But he applauds Schweitzer and others for their efforts in science diplomacy with Iran. “It is profoundly in U.S. national interests to maintain, nurture, and expand people-to-people ties with Iran,” adds Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative.

A few intrepid U.S. scientists are persevering. Iranian-American researchers have participated in recent expeditions to the Lut Desert, the hottest spot on the planet and home to a unique ecosystem that depends on dead migratory birds. And David Laylin, an independent U.S.-based ecologist who has worked on projects in Iran for decades, will spend 3 weeks there next month visiting sites designated for ecological restoration, including Lake Urmia, a saline water body in northwestern Iran that had lost about 90% of its maximum volume by 2014; the lake has recovered somewhat since then. Laylin, for one, is optimistic. “I am personally convinced U.S. scientists can visit Iran,” he says. However, he cautions, “If you don't know what you’re doing, you can get in a lot of trouble.”

Schweitzer is uncertain when NAS will be able to resume its engagement program with Iran. Funding has largely dried up, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury has tightened restrictions on licenses for U.S. scientists to bring equipment to Iran or even participate in conferences. “Looking to the future, we should get beyond the perennial problem of whether [the nuclear deal] will be sustained or not, and start focusing on what we can do to engage,” Schweitzer says. But the situation is more delicate than ever—for scientists in both countries. “We don’t want anyone going to jail because of us.”