Iran's endogenous civil-rights movement needs international solidarity, not political meddling. Academics, universities and non-governmental organizations can help.
“Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb-bomb, Iran,” sang John McCain to the tune of The Beach Boys' Barbara Ann at a US presidential campaign event in 2007. McCain, a Republican senator for Arizona, later insisted he was joking. Yet the spur-of-the-moment instinct behind the 'joke' sums up aptly the tendency of some politicians both in the West and in Iran to demonize each other's peoples as a faceless enemy.
But that kind of demonization has become passé over the past few weeks, as images of mass protests against Iran's allegedly fraudulent presidential election on 12 June have allowed many in the West to see faces of ordinary Iranians who are far from the crude stereotype. And many Iranians, although suspicious of the reactions of foreign governments, have been struck by the worldwide outpouring of empathy for their quest for fundamental civil liberties and self-determination.
“The research community should do everything possible to promote continued contacts with colleagues in Iran.”
In the past, unfortunately, Western governments and research organizations have bought into former US president George W. Bush's 'axis of evil' rhetoric by discriminating against Iranian researchers, denying or delaying visa applications, subjecting them to disproportionate vetting and showing lacklustre interest in collaborating. Moreover, the international scientific community has been laggard and passive in responding to the current situation. But Iranian scientists say that the solidarity of the international academic and scientific community is needed now more than ever.
They are quick to caution that the last thing the civil-rights movement needs is overt or covert support from Western governments. That would simply play into the Iranian regime's portrayal of the home-grown uprising as a foreign-inspired velvet revolution. The consensus among Iranian researchers is that the only steps that foreign governments should take are to refuse to recognize Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, and to condemn human-rights violations such as denying Iranians their constitutional right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Much more useful, they say, is broader pressure from Western academics, their institutions and other non-governmental organizations, which can impartially yet forcefully endorse Iranians' human rights, and condemn attacks on Iran's universities and the detention of Iranian academics (see Nature doi:10.1038/news.2009.597; 2009).
Research bodies and universities — and perhaps a few Nobel laureates — need to speak out louder. They should encourage, rather than discourage, collaboration, and replace past discrimination by welcoming Iranian researchers and students.
With the continuing Iranian crackdown on academics, for example, an exodus of young researchers can be expected. They will need the kind of assistance being provided by organizations such as the Scholars at Risk Network based in New York, an international network of universities and colleges that helps to find work for researchers seeking political asylum anywhere in the world. The international research community should find ways to support and expand such efforts. Likewise, with Iran's decision on Monday to confirm the re-election — albeit under a cloud of illegitimacy — of Ahmadinejad, who is backed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls nuclear policy, hopes for intergovernmental progress on curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions have been dealt a severe setback. The research community should thus do everything possible to promote continued contacts with colleagues in Iran, if only to promote détente between Iran and the West when relations are bellicose.
Meanwhile, the diaspora of Iranian academics is playing a key part in helping to get across the complexity of the situation in Iran. In informal public meetings, newspaper opinion pieces and discussions with governments and reporters, they say that, in contrast to what is often reported by Western media, the uprising has little to do with any desire to topple the regime. It is above all a broad civil-rights movement that extends far beyond the 'Twittering' classes. It is led by young people — 70% of Iranians are under 30 — who are not ideologically motivated, but instead are hungry for the greater freedoms that were one of the main, but unrealized, goals of the 1979 Iranian revolution. The majority of Iranian scientists are behind the movement.
The green wave
Iranian émigré scientists also point out that Mir-Hossein Mousavi — who ran against Ahmadinejad in this year's elections — is an unlikely leader of the protest movement. As prime minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989 he presided over a cultural revolution in which Iranian universities were violently purged of influences other than Islam, and many scientists fled the country to avoid death or imprisonment. But Mousavi, although a conservative, is now part of a broad coalition of political and ethnic forces — ethnic Iranians make up just half of the population of Iran — who want greater democracy and openness to the world. The protests surpass the issues of the contested election, and the green colour of Mousavi's presidential campaign has now become the symbol of this broader civil-rights movement.
Ahmadinejad is another matter entirely. Iranian expatriate academics explain that, after stalling immediately after the 1979 revolution, science gained momentum under reformist governments starting in the late 1990s. Ahmadinejad has maintained government support for science since his election as president in 2005. However, his regime has systematically savaged academic freedom in general, by purging universities of reformists and social scientists, and appointing government stooges to many senior university positions. His term in office has also been marked by the arrests of Iranian and foreign academics on trumped up charges of fomenting a revolution — having a damaging effect on international collaboration (see Nature 457, 511; 2009, and Nature 447, 890–891; 2007). In the short term, academic freedom and the isolation of Iran's scientists are likely to worsen under a regime desperate to cling onto power by crushing reformist elements, and targeting thousands of students, academics and other intellectuals for arrest. Seventy academics were arrested on 24 June after meeting Mousavi to give their analysis of current Iranian society, and other academics are reported to have been detained since, although reliable information is scarce. Academics are now in the front line, says one Iranian researcher who returned from Iran just days ago.
In the face of this bleak news, however, Iranian academics are surprisingly optimistic. They tend to buy into the argument that, despite the current crackdown, greater democracy is inevitable in Iran, which will provide an open society that is more conducive to science and critical thinking. They point out that Iran and Turkey are the two Muslim countries with the strongest democratic and secular traditions — and that academics have played a major part in helping the society resist religious obscurantism. Iran is not the only country in the region where human rights and democracy are violated; and the West has hypocritically been relatively silent on similar abuses by several of its allies in the Middle East. But in Iran at least, the country's long traditions of democracy, education and free thinking — suppressed for decades by the regime, and in particular the current hard-line leadership — are now out in the open.
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Nature Physics (2014)