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U.S., Iranian engineers seek greater tech cooperation

From EETimes
November 13, 2007

By Sheila Riley

SAN FRANCISCO — Despite recent heated political rhetoric between their governments, a delegation of U.S. scientists and engineers met with their Iranian counterparts in Tehran in October.

Representatives of the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) and Engineering sought to expand a program of scientific cooperation with Iranian institutions that began in 1999.

Common ground was apparent when the Americans, hosted by the prestigious Sharif University of Technology in Tehran and the Iranian Academy of Sciences, met with Iranian scientists and engineers. "One thing I've learned is that scientists and engineers share many values across cultures," said delegation leader William Wulf.

Those shared values include truth, objectivity and what constitutes ethical research, said Wulf, NAE president emeritus and a professor at the University of Virginia. Those values led to easier communication and a basis for building understanding and trust, resulting in professional collaboration even even though Washington and Tehran are at odds, he said.

"This was not a government-to-government dialogue. On the other hand, it was approved and even encouraged by the both the Iranian and U.S. governments," Wulf said.

The discussions between the two groups were straightforward, Wulf said. "We didn't run into any obfuscation. It was just very open," he said.

The technology issues discussed during the meetings were not strictly academic. Sadegh Vaez-Zadeh, Iranian vice president for science, suggested that scientists and engineers from both countries should look at monitoring inappropriate uses of technology, Wulf said.

"We asked if that would include weapons, and [Vaez-Zadeh] said yes," according to Wulf.

Wulf also noted that Iran is a relatively young country. By some estimates, two-thirds of the population is under 25. That age group enthusiastically welcomed the Americans. "Any time we were around young people, they just flew to us," Wulf said.

Some 1,800 students and professors packed a confernece room designed for 400 to hear physics Nobel laureate Joseph Taylor, a member of the U.S. delegation. "It was like a rock star," Wulf said.

And their interactions with other Iranians were equally positive.

Schoolgirls at a tourist outing to Persepolis, the ancient capital of Persia, tried out their English and took photos with the Americans, Wulf said. "The image that much of the press is pushing of a theocratic, anti-Western country may be true of the regime, but it's not what we experienced among the people on the street—quite the opposite," Wulf said.

Several continuing joint efforts were announced, according to NAS spokesperson William Skane.

They include:

  • A bilateral dialogue on general principles of "scientific discoveries that cause harm," either inadvertently or deliberately. The initial focus will be on biological research, nanotechnology, fossil fuels and cyber technology.

  • A workshop on practical means of using scientific achievements "to benefit all nations, increase understanding and avoid destructive confrontations."

  • A workshop on reducing earthquake damage to "unreinforced masonry structures."

  • An exchange of science policy specialists between the National Academies and Sharif University.

  • An effort to set up "channels of communication" between a Tehran high school and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (Alexandria, Va.).

    In spite of political differences, Iran and the U.S. have a history of academic cooperation. Many Iranians came to the U.S. to study engineering in the mid-1970s. When the Iranian government was overthrown in 1979, these students stayed.

    Najmedin Meshkati, who arrived with a bachelor's degree in political science from Iran, is among them. Now a professor at the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering, Meshkati has been following the recent events.

    The collaboration can have significant long-term benefits, Meshkati said. "This bodes very well for scientific and technological cooperation for the two countries."

    The timing-following harsh words between the Bush administration and Iran's political leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-is even more important than the event itself, Meshkati said.

    "It's so refreshing to see a group of top-notch scientists and engineers who belong to the most prestigious organizations-NAS and NAE-take this initiative and to defy all the rhetoric and politics to go to Iran and have this discussion," Meshkati said.

    Meshkati also predicted U.S.-Iran technology collaboration will extend beyond engineering, science and technology. "This delegation will have more respect and influence than a delegation of politicians and bureaucrats," he said. "These guys can make a big, big difference."

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