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U.S. Science Academy Official Detained in Tehran

A member of a U.S. scientific delegation headed by the President of the Institute of Medicine was interrogated for 9 hours earlier this month in his Tehran hotel. The U.S. National Academies labeled the incident a “serious breach,” and declared on Friday that they “cannot sponsor or encourage American scientists to visit Iran unless there are clear assurances that the personal safety of visiting scientists will be guaranteed.”

IOM President Harvey Fineberg and the small delegation were visiting Iran to identify opportunities for cooperation in the medical sciences. They were accompanied by Glenn Schweitzer, director of Eurasian programs at the Academies, who has spearheaded an 8-year effort to nurture scientific ties with Iran in the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries. On 4 December, three men who claimed to be security officers detained Schweitzer in his room for 3 hours of questioning. Two days later, they returned for another 6-hour session. The men threatened to prevent Schweitzer from leaving Iran and told him that exchange visitors are not welcome. None of the other members of the delegation were questioned, and the men, who did not identify themselves, did not explain why Schweitzer was targeted.

“This really was a big surprise. It’s a risk we did not expect at all,” says William Colglazier, executive officer of the Academies’ National Research Council.

One Iranian scientist told Science that two Iranian scientific academies have delivered “official apologies” to Schweitzer, who was allowed to leave the country with the rest of the delegation on 7 December. But Colglazier says the Academies are still awaiting a formal response from the Iranian government.
It’s unclear whether the incident is the opening salvo of a concerted effort to derail scientific cooperation with the West. “There are various interest groups who are unhappy about people-to-people relations such as S&T exchanges. As a result, there will always be attempts to jeopardize these exchanges,” says Shapour Etemad of the National Research Institute for Science Policy in Tehran. Others say that the risk of incidents is especially high in the run-up to Iran’s presidential elections in June 2009. “Tension is seen as beneficial by many conservatives in Iran,” says one Iranian scholar. “Conservatives are mostly suspicious and some of them even dead-set against the opening of Iran towards the West.”

Schweitzer, who was traveling on a visa issued expressly for the meeting, says this was his first problem in 10 trips to Iran in the past decade. But it's soured him on future visits. “I hope this is more of a bump in the road rather than a derailment,” he says. “But I won’t go back. I’ll let others pick up the mantle.”