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How US sanctions are crippling science in Iran

Besieged researchers say that currency collapse, scientific isolation and psychological strain are hindering almost every aspect of their work.

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A picture taken from inside a car shows the Azadi tower at the western entrance of the Iranian capital, Tehran.

The Azadi tower in Tehran. Aggressive US sanctions are making life difficult for many in Iran.Credit: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty

US economic and financial sanctions are having a devastating impact on Iran's economy—and its researchers.

After almost a year of sanctions put in place by US President Donald Trump, Iran is experiencing economic recession, a depreciating currency and high inflation. All of this is stretching budgets for equipment, supplies and travel, endangering research projects and sapping morale, say researchers.

It is now almost impossible to purchase research materials and services from abroad, they add, because companies and banks are being prevented from doing business in Iran.

The country's science minister Mansour Gholami told Nature that international collaboration has been hit, and researchers are being prevented from travelling to scientific conferences abroad. Active research collaborations between the US and Iran are also on hold.

“The sanctions are affecting health, research and education, things that were not supposed to be their target,” says Parham Habibzadeh, a human geneticist at Shiraz University of Medical Sciences in Iran. “Planning a research study in any field of science seems to be almost impossible,” he adds.

Vahid Ahmadi, head of the National Research Institute for Science Policy in Tehran, and an adviser to Gholami is critical of the international scientific community for not acknowledging the plight of researchers.

"Iranian researchers expect their colleagues and scientific societies abroad to be more active in speaking out against the impact of US sanctions on them," he says.

The sanctions

The United States has imposed waves of sanctions on Iran since 5 November 2018, months after the US president unilaterally withdrew his country from a nuclear deal agreed between Iran and six other world powers. Under this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — originally signed by then-US president Barack Obama in July 2015 — Iran agreed to restrictions on its nuclear activities that would have made it impossible for the country to quickly divert its nuclear programme to develop an atomic bomb.

John Kerry shakes hands with Mohammad Javad Zarif. The US and Iranian flags are in the background.

US secretary of state John Kerry meeting Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in 2016.Credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

The 2015 deal lifted earlier nuclear-related sanctions put in place by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and others. “The 2015 agreement was like a new hope,” recalls Mohammad Farhadi, a physician and former Tehran University president, who was Iran’s science minister from 2014 to 2017.

After withdrawing from the deal, the United States has now adopted a more aggressive ‘maximum pressure’ policy to isolate Iran. The Trump administration argues that its predecessor should have held out for more concessions, such as curbs on Iran’s ballistic-missile programme.

The reimposed US sanctions apply to all people and organizations worldwide. This makes it extremely difficult for Iran to sell the oil, petrochemicals and metals that are its main exports. China, however, is among a handful of countries that continues to defy sanctions and imports Iranian oil.

The sanctions also apply to banks, which are now refusing to process transactions involving Iranian companies and citizens. The international banking payments-transfer system known as SWIFT disconnected Iran's banks last year.

“Being unable to do the simplest things like ordering books online or paying registration fees for conferences should speak volumes about the significance of being cut off from the international financial institutions,” says one academic, who requested anonymity.

A steep drop in the value of the Iranian rial has also decimated the purchasing power of university budgets. In 2015, 28,000 rials would buy US$1 at official exchange rates, but that figure is now closer to 42,000 rials to $1, or 115,000 on the black market. Iran has also experienced inflation of 40.4% over the past year.

Most scientists cannot now afford to travel to conferences, says Abbas Edalat, a British-Iranian computer scientist based at Imperial College London. And there is little their international collaborators can do about it, he says.

Damaged livelihoods

Even basic necessities, including drugs and medical care, have become unaffordable, says Reza Malekzadeh, a biomedical researcher at Tehran University of Medical Sciences and a former health minister.

For researchers, the costs of reagents and equipment can be as much as four times what they were before the sanctions, particularly for goods and services purchased abroad, says Ali Gorji, an Iranian neuroscientist based at the University of Münster in Germany who founded the Shefa Neuroscience Research Center in Tehran and the Razavi Neuroscience Research Center in Mashhad. “Many research projects are under real pressure,” he says, especially those with fixed budgets.

A man counts Iranian rials at a currency exchange shop

The value of the Iranian rial has dropped sharply in recent years.Credit: Essam Al Sudani/Reuters

That includes a project that Gorji started in 2016 with researchers at the two centres in Iran to develop human stem-cell therapies for spinal-cord injuries. The project has run into difficulties as its budget for supplies — 450 million rials this year — is now worth about one-third of its 2016 value. The project is almost a year behind schedule, Gorji adds.

Collaborations on ice

The near-collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal has also affected international collaborations between the US and Iran. Since 2000, the US National Academies have led a major science-for-peace collaboration with Iranian research groups. Their goal has been to achieve scientific benefits for both sides and to encourage more amiable relations between the two countries' governments.

This project is now on ice partly because of the sanctions, but also because of deteriorating relations between the governments. The project's last engagement was a joint workshop in Italy in 2017, says Glenn Schweitzer, the academies' director for programmes in central Europe and Eurasia. He says the academies hope to revive it should relations improve.

Also in 2017, the US treasury department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) blocked five US scientists from attending the tenth International Conference on Magnetic and Superconducting Materials, which was held in Tehran in September.

A month before the conference, the department informed delegates that their participation was "prohibited" but gave no justification for why, according to two of the invited US delegates — physicists Warren Pickett of the University of California, Davis, and Laura Greene of Florida State University in Tallahassee — writing in APS News, the magazine of the American Physical Society. The scientists' legal counsel could see no reason why conference attendance would violate sanctions, they added. Asked to comment, a Treasury spokesperson said the department "generally does not comment on individual licenses".

One bright spot is in high-energy physics, where Iran has a strong intellectual tradition and historically solid links with researchers worldwide. CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, maintains close links with Iranian scientists, notably those from the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences in Tehran, according to a CERN spokesperson, and Iran is continuing to strengthen its contributions to the laboratory’s experiments.

Salvaging the deal

All of the world powers that signed the 2015 deal are opposed to the US withdrawal and the subsequent sanctions. In a leaked May 2018 cable, Kim Darroch, then UK ambassador to the United States, described the US withdrawal as “an act of diplomatic vandalism, seemingly for ideological and personality reasons — it was Obama’s deal”.

The EU has forbidden companies under its jurisdiction from complying with US sanctions, and those that do can face criminal penalties. EU companies face a dilemma: they must choose between breaking EU law or potentially breaching US sanctions.

In a gesture of political goodwill, several EU countries led by France, Germany and the United Kingdom are establishing a special payments channel to coordinate barter exchanges with Iran called the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX). The aim is to help their companies and Iran to circumvent US sanctions.

Researchers such as Gorji are not optimistic about the potential of INSTEX to ease their predicament. However, France's president Emmanuel Macron, it's main architect, has said he is determined to make it work.

With Iran facing yet more pressure from the United States and its allies including Saudi Arabia, the outlook for its scientists doesn't look promising. “The international scientific community needs to wake up to the problem and make more efforts to better support collaborative projects with their Iranian colleagues,” says Gorji.

Nature 574, 13-14 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02795-y

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