Hossein Akhani of the University of Tehran can no longer send plant samples abroad for genetic sequencing.

Ebrahim Mirmalek

Science in Iran languishes after Trump reimposes sanctions

To explore the genetic diversity of Iran’s desert plants, Hossein Akhani and his colleagues used to send DNA samples to a company in Seoul, which provided fast and reliable sequencing. But a few weeks ago, the University of Tehran biologist says, he received a letter from the company explaining that the South Korean government had advised the firm “not to deal with Iran.” The reason: the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, a multilateral agreement in which Iran agreed to freeze key nuclear activities in return for relief from international economic sanctions.

On 8 August, citing “the full range of threats posed by Iran,” U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order reimposing U.S. sanctions “as expeditiously as possible.” To put pressure on Europe and others still in the pact, the Trump administration also vowed to penalize foreign entities with U.S. interests that continue to trade with Iran. The U.S. withdrawal and the months of uncertainty that preceded it have shaken the Iranian economy and left the country increasingly isolated. With funds scarce and international ties fraying, “the situation for science is getting worse and worse,” Akhani says.

“Western countries have tried to isolate Iran for almost 40 years,” says Navid Madani, an Iranian expat biochemist who studies HIV at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston. Over the past decade, as sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear program ratcheted up, Iranian scientists found creative ways to persevere. But the latest developments are inflicting heavy damage to both research programs and morale, says Hamid Gourabi, a geneticist at the Royan Institute in Tehran. “We’re facing a devastating condition for our research centers and universities.”

Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost more than half its value since January, dealing a hammer blow to science. At the Royan, a global player in stem cell biology and reproductive medicine, Iranian government funding now covers little more than salaries, benefits, and food and energy subsidies, Gourabi says, forcing the institute to rely more heavily on fees from patients to buy equipment and reagents. However, fewer Iranians these days can afford the treatments the institute offers. And because of the U.S. sanctions, equipment is often available only on the black market, at high prices, Gourabi says.

Meanwhile, several foreign-sponsored clinical trials involving Iranian research centers have been stopped and “many others are in danger of being suspended,” says Ehsan Shamsi Gooshki, a medical ethicist at the Ministry of Health and Medical Education in Tehran. Other collaborations have been scaled back. For example, an initiative to reduce urban health inequalities run by the Wellcome Trust, the London-based biomedical charity, had sought to include Tehran as one of six pilot cities. “We couldn’t find any bank willing to transfer funds” from the United Kingdom to Tehran, says project leader Majid Ezzati, an environmental health scientist at Imperial College London. The project intends to keep Iranian partners “intellectually involved,” he says.

Researchers at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences (TUMS) got similar bad news recently. They were slated to team up with a group at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City for a U.S. National Institutes of Health–funded study on cardiovascular disease patterns in Iran’s Golestan province. But Mount Sinai was unable to transfer the Iranian share of the grant to Tehran. (Mount Sinai declined to comment.) “In spite of this we are trying to continue the collaboration based on our own funding,” says project partner Reza Malekzadeh, director of TUMS’s Digestive Disease Research Institute.

Even a major U.S. initiative that had weathered earlier tensions has felt the chill. Since 1990, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C., working with Iranian counterparts, has organized workshops and exchanges in areas such as seismology, water management, and air pollution, involving 1500 scientists from the two countries. That program has been on hold for almost a year. “We’re waiting for further foreign policy developments,” says its director, Glenn Schweitzer. One uncertainty, sources say, is whether U.S. scientists could obtain limited exemptions from sanctions to collaborate with Iranian colleagues.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s 2017 travel ban bars most Iranian citizens from entering the United States. And scientists from Europe and other countries are less likely to visit Iran because of a U.S. regulation that predates Trump’s presidency. Since early 2016, people from those countries have been disqualified from the U.S. visa waiver program, which eases entry to the United States, if they have visited Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen. That requirement discourages scientists from collaborating on projects in Iran for fear of rejection when they apply for a U.S. visa. “This has become one of the worst issues,” Gooshki says.

Madani, an Iranian-American who travels once or twice a year to Iran for research visits, says she does not intend to allow the dismal political atmosphere to derail her efforts. “We have to push against the sanctions,” she says. Her latest collaboration with Iranian colleagues is a search for candidate anti-HIV compounds in Iranian herbs. With no express mail service that delivers to the United States now operating in Iran, she recently had to fly to Tehran just to pick up the samples for testing in her lab.

But with few Western scientists following Madani’s lead, the outlook for science in Iran remains bleak. If things don’t improve soon, Gourabi and others fear an exodus of scientific talent. “We are at the beginning of a crisis,” he says.