First Effort: Dialogue in Vienna, 1995
In January 1995, while visiting San Diego, I met an interesting Iranian-born American scientist, Massoud Simnad. (Note) Recently elected to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, he knew the president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Reza Amrollahi. Indeed, Amrollahi had invited Simnad to Iran a year before.
Viewing Simnad as the key to a very complicated lock, I organized a meeting with the Iranians. We asked to meet, in Iran or Europe, with Dr. Amrollahi. We were told that we could meet with “members of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran” if we came to Vienna on September 13, following the annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency. I asked Frank von Hippel of Princeton University to join Massoud and me. But when we showed up, only one adviser to Dr. Amrollahi was present—a man so nervous about this meeting becoming known that he was initially reluctant to give his name. (And Tehran, we were told, had been nervous even about sending him ... 1995 was a very early date for meeting with any Americans.)
We talked for a total of about six hours about energy problems, nuclear weapons, the requirements to start a dialogue, chemical and biological weapons, maintaining borders with Iraq, and the Rushdie case, for which I made a proposal. (Note) They said the Iranian side would take further dialogue under advisement, but nothing resulted.
Opening Scientific Exchange with Iran
In spring 1998, I asked Massoud to help open scientific communications with Iran. High levels of the Iranian Executive Branch, including the Foreign Ministry, gave permission, but when it came time to find an institution to issue the invitation, problems arose. One courageous department head of Amirkabir University of Technology tried hard but reported that his university president and the Ministry of Education would have to give approval. It was clear that everyone was afraid to take responsibility for us and that he was being given the run-around in Tehran. What to do?
Massoud had been invited to speak at the Second International Non-Renewable Energy Sources Congress (INRESC ’98) in November by Professor Ali Mansoori, who was chairman of the international scientific community committee organizing the conference. Mansoori said that if the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) would become a sponsor of the conference, I and another FAS scientist could join Massoud as “sponsors” of the conference. So this was what we did.
Three weeks before the conference opened, a bus with American businessmen was attacked and the visitors badly frightened. The police failed to defend them or even to escort them to the airport the next day. Shortly thereafter, demonstrations in three cities broke out defending the attacks on the Americans; the demonstrators issued a press release saying that the next American delegation would be treated “more severely.”
I asked FAS vice chairman Robert Adams whether, in light of all this, he still wanted to go. He responded by telling me of more hazardous situations he had experienced. And when I asked Massoud about it, he just said: “Well, that’s Iran for you....” This was only one year after the Khatami government was elected, in May 1997, and it was under pressure not to open a dialogue with the West. It seemed all the more important to go.
The trip to Iran and the meeting went smoothly, although the conference secretary was extremely nervous about our presence and asked, “What exactly does scientific dialogue mean to you?” And Iranian newspaper columnists were arguing that scientific dialogue was a method of infiltrating Iran. In this atmosphere, meetings already scheduled were called off.
During the week, the Swiss ambassador to Iran invited our delegation to meet with six other ambassadors but mentioned to me that he could not invite Massoud Simnad because he was “Iranian,” that is, an Iranian American and not a real American. The Ambassador was advised, in no uncertain terms, that our delegation could not attend a party without Massoud and that, in America, he was an American, pure and simple.
Massoud was invited, but we realized the full anomaly of the situation. Iranian Americans can go to Iran on their Iranian passports without special visas but are then treated, under Iranian law, as Iranians. The Swiss Ambassador is told by the Iranian Government that he has no jurisdiction over them and the U.S. Government does not always weigh in to protect its Iranian-American citizens.
On the night of December 17, 1998, after a week in Iran, CNN broadcast that the United States had begun bombing neighboring Iraq. I woke up Robert Adams and asked if he thought we should make a run for the airport and catch a late-night flight out of the country. We decided not to do that, but, considering the uncertain atmosphere toward Americans and the difficulty in making appointments, Massoud and I decided to join Adams in his already-scheduled flight out the next day and to abandon our second week.
Catalyzing Scientific Exchange Through a Return Visit
The first visit paid off in a significant return visit. After eight further difficult months of negotiations, using Ali Mansoori as a middle man, we located, invited, and managed to secure the agreement of a return delegation from the Iranian Academy of Sciences. It arrived on September 7, 1999. (Note) The delegation was introduced to leading scientific organizations, including: the American Physical Society; American Chemical Society; American Association for the Advancement of Science; and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). We offered our delegation to the NAS for a full day in the hopes—eventually vindicated—that the two academies would work up some kind of agreement to continue exchanges.
The September/October 1999 FAS newsletter shows me joining the hands of President Reza Davari and NAS president Bruce Alberts in symbolic representation of what had been accomplished.(Note)
By September 2000, Alberts had visited Iran, and the two academies had issued a joint statement pledging to initiate six joint workshops over the next two years. (Note)
The same FAS newsletter (September/October 1999) announced my impending retirement from FAS in June 2000 after thirty years of service and explained my hopes for a new kind of organization, Catalytic Diplomacy, that would “provide independent counsel to officials in a number of places–much as do the for-profit international consulting firms.” I began working immediately in my capacity as president of Catalytic Diplomacy while managing the FAS operation until a new president could be found. But what to do next?
In February 2000, hearing that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was preparing a major speech on Iran, I actually volunteered a draft speech. On February 28, her director of policy planning, Morton Halperin, sent word that my draft speech was “very helpful,” but in fact the final speech had only one notion in common with my draft! This was to weaken the sanctions in such a way as to encourage NGOs to make contact with Iran. (Note)
The Albright speech confirmed in my mind the insatiably picky quality of the Iranian political response. She actually expressed regret for the U.S. overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh a half-century earlier and relaxed the sanctions on rugs, caviar, and pistachios, as the Iranians wanted. Not only did they not reciprocate or even get their ambassador to attend the speech in time to greet her; they also objected incessantly to the following paragraph because it used the word “unelected” for the Supreme Leader: “As in any diverse society, there are many currents swirling about in Iran. Some are driving the country forward; others are holding it back. Despite the trend toward democracy, control over the military, judiciary, courts and police remains in unelected hands.... ”
We had a similar problem with the scientists we had invited. At the time of the visit, the thanks from the Iranian scientists had been profuse, (Note) but there was no indication of an invitation for a return visit. I finally forced the issue and, with difficulties, got a visa. (Note) It turned out that the visa had been secured, in the end, through the good offices of a gastronomist who had been on the Iranian delegation to Washington. He realized that the person whose approval was needed in the Foreign Ministry was someone to whom he had given a colonoscopy, so he called him up (he told me that he sometimes gave seventeen colonoscopies in one day). The doctors in Iran had considerable nonpolitical influence.
Unfortunately, this visit, from May 3 to May 10, 2000, on my way to Russia, produced almost nothing of consequence, mainly because the scientists we had invited, and who were now hosting us in return, were extremely cautious. They introduced me to almost no one—the President of Sharif University was an exception—turned down suggestions of people that I wanted to see, and were, really, not about to do anything that might expose them to criticism. “Banquets” in my honor turned out, on arrival, to be just dinners with one or a couple of the scientists I had invited to America. They were so cautious that one of them wanted me to introduce myself as “former president of Federation of American Scientists” rather than “president of Catalytic Diplomacy”—mainly, I think, because diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States were a highly controversial idea, to put it mildly.
At one group meeting, hearing that I had predicted something in China-Taiwan relations, they asked me to predict which faction—the conservatives or the reformists—would prevail in Iran. I suggested the reformers, as the conservatives would eventually die out. At this, they began arguing among themselves in Farsi. They seemed to be sniffing the winds to determine which way they should move.
In the end, they evinced signs of gratitude, for all that had been done for them in America, but no real desire to reciprocate. I was forced to recognize that the Iranian scientists were not a useful base for further improvement of relations.
And I was forced to recognize, as had been indicated before in the 1995 meeting in Vienna, that dealings with the Iranian government, or representatives of it, took, in the end, the form of hard bargaining; agreements were not honored without continual pressure and vigilance.