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By Clifton B. Parker on January 9, 2009 in University News

In November 2008, I made my second trip in five years to Iran. This weeklong visit to Persia had similarities to the first, but some of the differences were notable.

During our recent sojourn, we saw the first evidence of the political differences since our 2004 trip. Repeatedly, we heard from Iranian spokespeople how much better things are in Iran since the 1979 revolution with regard to the availability and quality of higher education.

As well, we heard frequently of many fears “in the air,” fears that were not present during the 2004 visit — how the U.S. embargo is stalling research and harming the economy, how the visa problem is caused predominantly by the U.S., and not Iran, and so on. These concerns were sprinkled within much broader conversations, but they stood out. In toto, they had the feel of a planned message to us.

Also noticeably, there was no “free-wheeling” talk by the Iranians, who appeared fearful that someone might be listening. Those fears might not be unfounded on university campuses. Since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, he has replaced the presidents of 39 of the country’s 40 top universities.

‘Community time’

Perhaps the composition and intentions of our delegations were the main causes for the dissimilarities. In 2004, we were the first high-level university delegation to Iran. In retrospect, it appears that we were treated specially at every turn, and that everyone, including other universities, other units within every university, relatives of private families with whom we visited — everyone — wanted more discussion and “community time” with us. In addition, we had two deans with us in 2004 — Neal Van Alfen of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and Enrique Lavernia of the College of Engineering. Deans are closer to the action at a university, and their conversations with our multiple hosts were more practical and on the mark with regard to future collaborations.

On the other hand, the 2008 trip had the potential for more impact, more punch. It was arranged by the Association of American Universities for six member-presidents, and that caught people’s attention. I was joined by Jared Cohon, Carnegie Mellon University; David Leebron, Rice University; J. Bernard Machen, University of Florida; C.D. Mote, Jr., University of Maryland, College Park; and David Skorton, Cornell University; and AAU’s president, Robert M. Berdahl.

We made contact with eight universities, and spent close to a full day with our host institution, Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. (Interestingly, Sharif’s chancellor, Saeed Sohrabpour — who has his doctorate in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley — is the only leader of a top university still in place since Ahmadinejad took office.)

As well, this second trip was preceded by one that five engineering deans took about a year ago, sponsored by the National Academies. The Washington, D.C.-based Richard Lounsbery Foundation, which provides assistance for the National Academies’ trips, paid most of that group’s travel expenses, and ours. Finally, and curiously, wives were invited this time. I have not figured out why, exactly, except perhaps that it might have been hoped that the wives would see that Iranian women are more “free” than Americans might have thought. The dress code in this theocracy, though, was clear — only faces and hands may be exposed.

Nuclear controversy

During our November 2008 visit, we had an audience with Iran’s minister of science, research and technology, Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi. Again, after the niceties, the minister got into all of the previous statements of concern regarding U.S.-Iran relations, and added a few: e.g., “Iran is developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes, not military means; Iranian research papers are being turned down in Western journals just because they are Iranian.”

He went on at some length in this vein and, afterwards, our interpreter said he did not even translate all of it.

I was really looking forward to returning to Tehran University, and visiting for the first time one of the institutes conducting stem cell research. But our AAU delegation was split into groups of two and three by Berdahl to visit many of the universities and institutes, and I ended up going elsewhere.

But they were all interesting visits, and I asked in each case, “Is the embargo a problem for higher education?” and “Do you think your faculty are having publications blocked, just because they are from Iran?”

Publishing difficulties

The reactions were mixed, but some very strong. A Sharif professor pointed out that because of the embargo he has to go to the black market for equipment. This meant he may have to wait a year and pay five times as much. An Amirkabir researcher was certain that his papers never had a problem in the past, but were being rejected now only because they came from Iran.

I have no doubt about the embargo tales. The publication stories, though, are suspect. I cannot imagine Western editors yielding to any political pressure when it comes to the evaluation of research reports.

Our trip south to Isfahan and Isfahan University of Technology was interesting. We were joined on the bus by a woman named Maryam. She was dressed as a native of Iran, but is an American from Walnut Creek. She met her husband when they were undergraduates at UC Berkeley, married there, then moved to Pennsylvania State University for his doctoral work. The surprise was that she was Muslim before she met Nadar, now a Sharif professor. Today, they have two sons, and the oldest, Hassan, is now working on his master’s degree.

On the way to Isfahan, I noticed what appeared to be anti-aircraft guns. I asked Maryam about them. She pointed out two things in the immediate area — a large, four “stack” nuclear power plant, and, more important, the site where uranium was enriched for nuclear power. This is the controversial plant at Natanz that the U.S. is so worried about, and which Iran says is simply for making the materials for the nuclear power plant.

At the outset, the 2008 trip appeared to offer the advantage of prestige. It was organized by the AAU, included six AAU university presidents and the AAU president, and was a follow-up to a National Academies deans’ visit.

Even so, I believe the 2004 visit was more successful, most significantly because of the involvement of Iranian and Iranian American families and friends, both at home and in Iran.

Only time will tell.


Media contact(s)

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,