On May 8, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal. The White House mentioned that it intends to reimpose strict economic sanctions that are targeted “to wind down operations in or business involving Iran.” As many across the globe are expressing their concerns and opinions on this development, the scientific community too is speculating the repercussions of this decision on the future of science. Before looking at what some of these speculations are, it is important to understand this development better.
Why were sanctions imposed on Iran?
Since the 1970s, Iran was developing nuclear technology, and by the early 2000s it became known that Iran had built two nuclear enrichment facilities in Arak and Natanz. Following years of global tensions over these nuclear programmes, several sanctions were imposed on Iran by the United Nations (U.N.), the U.S., and the European Union (EU). These sanctions had a huge impact on Iran’s economy as their exports experienced a steep decline.
What impact did the sanctions have on science in Iran?
Science and research in Iran took a hit as the sanctions prevented Iranian researchers from contributing to international research. Moreover, Iranian researchers found it increasingly challenging to conducting research within their own country owing to difficulties in acquiring experimental equipment and buying journal subscriptions. The restrictions enforced on Iran also prevented researchers from collaborating with other nations, which further crippled science in Iran.
Why was the nuclear deal signed?
Regardless, Iran continued with its nuclear programmes. After repeated attempts to persuade the country to abandon nuclear enrichment, in 2015, an agreement was signed called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The UN Security Council that comprises of six world powers (China, France, the U.K., Russia, the U.S., plus Germany or P5+1 as they are known) persuaded Iran to sign the accord, which promised relaxation in sanctions in exchange for Iran pulling back on its nuclear activities.
How have the Iran-U.S. relations been since the deal?
Researchers in Iran were optimistic that the nuclear deal would open new opportunities to initiate international research collaborations. However, diplomatic relations between Iran and the U.S. continued to deteriorate and “scientific exchanges between Iran and the United States came to a halt,” reports an article in Nature. For instance, U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine abandoned the programs they organized as part of the U.S. and Iran science engagement activity.
While collaborations between Iranian and European researchers have been relatively smooth, the same is not the case with Iran-U.S. collaborations. Owing to the sanctions that continued to be imposed after the nuclear deal was signed, American researchers required prior permission to work with Iranian researchers, which has acted as a wedge between the two nations.
What are researchers’ reactions to Trump's announcement?
Now after the latest announcement, researchers are anxious of any negative repercussions. In addition to being apprehensive about important scientific research getting thwarted, they are also worried about world peace. “Everybody is concerned,” says Soroosh Sorooshian, an Iranian-American hydrologist at the University of California in Irvine, because it would be difficult to keep a tab on Iran’s nuclear activities and any plans of science collaborations will be tough to pursue. This is what Jess Phoenix, a geologist and congressional candidate from California, tweeted:
Trump's violation of the #IranDeal doesn't just jeopardize our security...it also threatens important scientific research around the world. Another example of why we need evidence-based policy-making! #Jess2018#science #CA25 https://t.co/4G44mWjwUr— Jess Phoenix (@jessphoenix2018) May 9, 2018
Some researchers have been wary since the 2016 presidential election campaign. Trump had promised during the campaign that if he got elected, he would make it his “No. 1 priority […] to dismantle the disastrous [Iran nuclear] deal.” In fact, just before Trump formally took office in 2017, a group of 37 researchers that included Nobel laureates, veteran makers of nuclear arms, and former White House science advisers, wrote an open letter urging the President to preserve the deal.
What does the future hold?
Worryingly, Iran has threatened to resume its nuclear enrichment activities following America’s withdrawal from the deal. However, it still remains bound by the accord and is expected to abide by it, but Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani indicated that his decision will be based on national interests. The extent to which these developments affect the present collaborations that Iran is part of and its future scientific endeavors will likely depend on the stance Iran and other nations take.