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US-Iran exchanges hang in balance as Trump weighs decision on nuclear deal

The State Department has spent no money this year on US-Iran exchanges amid uncertainty over the fate of the nuclear agreement.
URMIEH, IRAN - JANUARY 23:  Iranian university student Vahid Rezaei (R) and his brother Saeed Rezaei collect water samples from the salt-encrusted former lakebed of Iran's shrinking Lake Urmieh, which presents a risk of salt storms and future health and environmental problems on January 23, 2015 in Urmieh, northwest Iran. Once one of the largest salt lakes in the world, it has lost 90 percent of its volume in the past decade and symbolizes the scale of the water crisis facing Iran today. Decades of overuse,

WASHINGTON — There is more riding on US President Donald Trump’s upcoming decision whether to recertify Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) than the fate of that landmark nuclear deal.

Ever since Trump’s inauguration, the State Department has been sitting on or diverting funds for cultural and scientific exchanges with Iran. More than 500 Iranians have come to the United States on such exchanges since 2006, contributing to mutual scientific advances and creating a foundation for closer bilateral ties between the longtime adversaries.

Under the Barack Obama administration and with the support of President Hassan Rouhani’s government, these exchanges had accelerated. Al-Monitor has learned that the State Department had funding in 2017 to bring 50-60 visitors from the Middle East and North Africa to the United States. Normally a substantial number would have come from Iran, but this year, no Iranians have arrived.

If the Trump administration does not recertify the JCPOA, the future of programs such as the International Visitor Leadership Program in regard to Iran could be in real jeopardy, according to practitioners who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

The International Visitor Leadership Program, the marquee initiative of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, was extended to Iran during the second half of the George W. Bush administration. In more than 75 years of operation, the program has attracted more than 200,000 people from 190 countries. Many of them have gone on to become prominent politicians and business leaders and made important contributions to international peace and prosperity.

According to the State Department, there have been 53 Iran-US exchanges since 2006 in areas including women’s entrepreneurship, climate science, seismology, ophthalmology, poetry, journalism and dozens of other fields. Of the Iranians who have come to the US on these programs, more than 60% had advanced degrees, and 43% were women. The visitors have also been geographically diverse, representing more than 40 Iranian universities.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, working with US universities and Iranian counterparts, have been a leader in the exchange field. In his new book on US-Iran engagement in science, engineering and health, Glenn Schweitzer, the director of the Office for Central Europe and Eurasia at the National Academies, wrote that since 2001, the academies have organized 32 scientific workshops with Iranians, bringing together 1,500 Iranian and American scientists from 120 institutions. A third of the workshops took place in the United States, a third in Iran and the remainder in other countries.

Schweitzer said the organizers chose areas in which the “Iranians have something to bring to the table.”

“We don’t do exchanges for the sake of exchanges,” Schweitzer said at a Sept. 8 event at the Atlantic Council in Washington to launch his book. “Our goal is to cooperate in science. With good science collections, diplomacy will follow easily."

Certain areas are off-limits because of their potential military applications, including important aspects of physics, chemistry and biology, Schweitzer said. But that still leaves extremely important topics, including earthquake prediction, renewable energy, wildlife conservation, preservation of saline lakes, the health effects of air pollution, adaptation to climate change and wetlands conservation.

Workshops have taken place on reducing foodborne diseases, enhancing the resiliency of cities, preserving environmental landscapes and improving the earthquake resistance of buildings. Iranians have visited the Salton Sea in California and the Great Salt Lake in Utah; US students from Utah State University and other universities have visited parched Lake Urmia in northwestern Iran as part of a joint effort to better understand saline lakes.

Schweitzer said these workshops result in published documents that record the proceedings and their outcomes. He also pointed to a rising number of Iranian publications in peer-reviewed international scientific journals — 50,000 last year, twice the number of a decade ago — as evidence of Iran’s growing scientific prowess and the benefit to the international community of Iran’s reintegration into the global scientific community.

Asked what concrete benefit Americans have obtained from interacting with Iranian scientists, Schweitzer noted Iranian advances in treating stomach cancer and Chagas’ disease, a parasitic illness that originated in the Americas that can fatally damage the heart as well as the nervous and digestive systems. Iran also is doing pioneering work in dry land agriculture and coping with droughts, he said.

With excellent educational institutions such as Sharif University of Technology, Iran produces first-class scientists and engineers. Schweitzer recounted that during a trip to Iran several years ago, he visited the Pasteur Institute in Tehran where lab workers were analyzing rodent tissue for signs of rabies. It turned out that the samples had been sent from Iraq by the US Army to see if there was a rabies problem where US troops were operating, Schweitzer said. Iran was the nearest country with the requisite facilities to do the work.

Even under the Obama administration, which sought better relations with Iran, US-Iran exchanges faced challenges, including concerns among US scientists about their safety in Iran, long waits for Iranians to obtain US visas and a dearth of financial resources to support exchanges (it costs about $20,000 to bring one Iranian to the United States and to cover expenses for one month). All those problems have been compounded under the Trump administration, which shortly after taking office sought to impose a blanket travel ban on all visitors from Iran and several other Muslim-majority nations.

Even though the travel ban has been largely stayed by US courts, processing visas for Iranians — who must travel outside their home country to be interviewed and to pick up the visas — can still take many, many months.

It has also become more time-consuming to obtain licenses from the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for exchanges. However, OFAC has issued two general licenses for collaboration with Iran on environmental conservation and the protection of wildlife, and US scientists are now able to take laptop computers to Iran.

David Laylin, an ecologist with extensive experience in Iran both before and after the 1979 revolution, noted the emphasis the Rouhani government is putting on the environment given prolonged droughts, air pollution and other environmental ills.

“The forests have been devastated, the wetlands are almost dry, arable lands over-tilled leading to dust storms, range lands have been over-grazed … rainwater turns to floods because of lack of ground cover … and surface water has been mismanaged,” he said.

The Hamoun wetlands on the border with Afghanistan have largely dried up, displacing 650,000 people; those who remain have to cover their faces at night with damp cloths during frequent dust storms, or else “they don’t wake up in the morning,” Laylin said. Laylin, who attended a recent conference in Tehran on sand and dust storms, added that the Iranian government was eager to cooperate with the United States in dealing with these challenges.

John Limbert, a former US hostage in Iran who capped his career in the Foreign Service by serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran in Obama’s first term, conceded that people-to-people diplomacy with Iran was not a panacea at a time when the two governments remain at odds on so many issues. But he urged organizers not to give up.

“This has been a long slog,” Limbert said. “The political stalemate we’ve been in for 38 years remains. … Can these wonderful programs contribute to breaking that downward spiral? … The lesson is to keep at it.”

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