Glenn Schweitzer was detained by Iranian security officials during a visit to the country on behalf of the US National Academy of Sciences. Credit: NAS

The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has suspended all visits by its scientists to Iran. The move follows the detention in December of one of its top officials, who was in Iran as part of a joint US-Iranian 'science for peace' programme. Visits will resume, says the academy, only if the Iranian government provides firm assurances that NAS scientists can visit the country safely.

Glenn Schweitzer, a veteran physicist who manages the NAS's Eurasian scientific visits and exchanges, was detained in early December for three hours in his Tehran hotel by three men claiming to be from the Iranian security services. Two days later, he was detained again for six hours. The men threatened to prevent him from leaving the country if he did not cooperate, he says.

Schweitzer was visiting Iran as part of a long-running programme between the academy and Iranian scientific organizations. The programme is intended not only to promote scientific collaboration, but also to keep scientific diplomatic channels open between the two countries despite the continuing political confrontation.

Near the end of Schweitzer's visit, three men knocked on the door of his hotel room, he says, and asked to enter "under the false pretence" that Iranian scientists had recommended that the men meet him to discuss scientific opportunities in the United States. Once inside, they identified themselves as members of the Iranian security services and subjected Schweitzer to an interrogation. The second interrogation, by the same men, took place just hours before Schweitzer was due to fly back to the United States. "They had no specific allegations; they said they just wanted to ask me some questions," he says.

"What followed was just lots and lots of questions about why we were there, what we were doing and so forth," Schweitzer recalls. The men told him that US scientists were not welcome in Iran, he adds.

"It went on and on, and then they just said, 'We will let you go now', without further explanation," says Schweitzer. The precise identity of the men is unclear, as they refused to show formal identification. "I asked them for their names and IDs but they just laughed," Schweitzer says.

Diplomatic incident

The detention was a "a big surprise for us", says William Colglazier, executive officer of the NAS and chief operating officer of the National Research Council. The NAS programme, which began in 1999, has been endorsed and encouraged by the highest levels of the Iranian government. It has involved 50 Iranian and American research and academic centres, a dozen workshops, and multiple visits in both directions. "We have always been received warmly in Iran," adds Colglazier.

Schweitzer is keen to play down the incident, describing his detention as "minor" compared with other human-rights abuses. But he admits that "it didn't seem minor at the time". His main concern then was catching his plane, which he did. "I had a nervous wife back home, though," he says.

But the academy has responded firmly to what it describes as a diplomatic incident. It is "a very serious breach of the understandings by which the U.S. National Academies have sponsored and encouraged scientific exchanges with Iran," the academy says.

In a letter sent to the "appropriate authorities" in Iran, the academy has not asked for an explanation of the incident itself, but has instead demanded firm assurances that in future "the personal safety of visiting scientists will be guaranteed and that they will be treated with dignity and respect", says Colglazier.

"We want to be assured that this was an aberration," says Colglazier. The NAS has not yet received a reply, but says it will resume visits immediately if it obtains the requested assurances. "We hope that we can resume work in Iran," Colglazier says.

Scientific diplomacy programmes are "really important", says Schweitzer, who in the past worked to keep channels open with the Soviet Union during the cold war. Such cooperation helps break down walls and nurture contacts, he says, adding that many of the participating senior scientists on both sides have roles and high-level contacts within their governments. "I think we have contributed to bringing the United States and Iran a little bit closer together."

Schweitzer adds that he has been delighted by the "flood" of e-mails and telephone calls he has received since the incident from Iranian colleagues expressing their support and hopes of continuing scientific contact and exchanges. "We have had a lot of bumps in the road over the past 10 years, and I hope this is indeed just another bump in the road," he says. "This time I just happened to be the bumpee."