APS News

Iranian Scientists Battle Numerous Restrictions

By Michael Lucibella

Scientists in Iran are facing difficult times, as political and academic freedoms in the country have eroded in the last few years. Universities have been coming under stricter scrutiny from the government, especially since the student-led protests two years ago. The political situation, combined with limited available resources, has left science in Iran barely able to limp along.

Iran has had a complicated history of academic freedom. Before the revolution of 1979, the old regime under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi kept careful tabs on the activities of students and professors at academic institutions. Academic institutions suffered as a result.

“During the Shah’s time, the environment, the atmosphere was extremely repressive,” said Mostafa Hemmati of Arkansas Tech University, who is the president of the Iranian-American Physicists Network. He added that following the revolution in 1979, that changed for a while under the new regime. Surprisingly, academic freedom at universities and colleges started to burgeon, and the quality of the universities improved tremendously as well. For several years, a certain amount of academic freedom, and student organizations on school-related subjects, were tolerated at universities.

Cultural and scientific collaborations with the United States reached a peak in the mid 1990s. “Especially in the last 14 years, when Khatami [Iran’s former reformist president] was elected as president, the atmosphere in universities became a lot more open,” said Hemmati, “It was easy to speak your mind.”

However at the end of the 1990s, the tide started to turn away from the open atmosphere that academics once enjoyed. “Gradually at the end of Khatami’s first term, the conservative part of the government tried to start tightening the screws. And during Khatami’s second term it’s gotten worse. Since Ahmadinejad, things have gotten worse and worse and worse,” said Hemmati.

The conservative Ahmadinejad replaced the reformist Khatami as president in 2005 after a controversial election in which Iran’s Guardian Council banned thousands of reformist candidates from participating. Under the current president, the student organizations were harassed and where organizations once were allowed office space to operate, nearly all have been quietly closed down. Ahmadinejad signed a law requiring guards to be stationed in the universities, and instituted a “three strikes” policy for students who were seen as challenging the status quo.

In June of 2009 the disputed reelection of president Ahmadinejad sparked massive protests across the country. For over a month, the country was rocked with unrest, with protestors calling the election fraudulent and demanding that Ahmadinejad not be sworn in as president. The unrest sparked a government crackdown, especially against universities and university students whom the government saw as leading the unrest.

“Almost everything is being done with an intention to control the environment in the university. This is all due to a very vibrant opposition movement,” Hemmati said.

Professors and faculty have also been the targets of government harassment. The most dramatic example happened in January of 2010 when a bomb detonated outside the house of professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi, a theoretical physicist at Tehran University, killing him as he left for work. Though the Iranian government blamed the United States and Israel for the attack, many believe he was targeted by the Iranian government because of his open support for Ahmadinejad’s opposition.

Such an overt attack is rare, and most of the pressure felt by academics is more subtle.

“The political situation is very different. If you participate in politics of any sort you would be facing a very different situation than you would in America,” said Farhad Ardalan, a string theorist at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. “If you are on the wrong side of politics, you might not be able to get employed.”

It is a problem that Ardalan has personally faced. Though he is one of the most prominent physicists in Iran and responsible for establishing the first doctoral program in the country, his pro-democracy stance has garnered the ire of the conservative government. Two years ago the university hastened his retirement, and the Iranian Academy of Sciences refused to recognize him. “I was not welcome in the political picture here now,” said Ardalan.

The curricula at universities have also come under the close scrutiny of the Islamist government. Over the last two years Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has called for a review of the material taught at universities in order to bring it more in line with Islamic doctrine. The minister of education has set up a committee tasked with reviewing university curricula. During that time, the heads of most major universities in the countries have been replaced with religious leaders, resulting in religious requirements for unrelated degrees.

“If you look at the transcripts of any Iranian student who applies to a university abroad, you’ll see that in areas such as hard science, physics or English, a large fraction of the classes that are forced on these students are based on Islamic items,” said Hossein Sadeghpour of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a member of APS’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists. He estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of a physics student’s transcript would be comprised of classes on Islamic ideology and philosophy.

This new state of affairs has meant that more resources are devoted towards religious study.

“You just imagine the ayatollah, with a very conservative point of view, serving as your university president. What is going to be receiving the most emphasis?” Hemmati said.

Though it seems that the actual science content of the classes themselves has remained largely intact, which subjects the university wants to emphasize has shifted. The government is less likely to financially support fundamental research than research with military or social applications. Though this is true in many countries it is more acute in Iran, said one source who has worked in both Iran and England. He requested anonymity to protect family members still living in Iran.

“Either you are one of the people that government is in favor of, or you have a hard time,” the source said.

Acquiring the needed equipment to carry out research is another thorny problem, even when funding resources are available. A weak currency exchange rate combined with international sanctions means that much of the cutting edge equipment needed for research is priced out of the range of most Iranian science institutions. Cheap alternatives are sometimes available from China, but the quality is often not comparable to Western products.

“For something that you could buy in Europe and get it after six months, you have to spend five years and redo all research that people have done before,” the source said. “You do a lot of work but you end up with not really the standard frontier of results.”

The difficulty in setting up a lab has had two effects on the physics community in Iran; a disproportionate number of theorists because it is cheaper to host them, and a general brain drain from the country.

However traveling abroad presents its own difficulties. In 2010, when Ardalan tried to come to the APS March Meeting, visa complications prevented him from entering the country. Other physicists have also said that long visa delays have prevented them from traveling to the United States.

“As soon as someone is tagged as a physicist from Iran, they immediately identify them as part of the nuclear program,” Ardalan said. “I’m one of the usual suspects.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos