Risk-Benefit Analysis: Open Scientific Dialog In a Time of Security Concerns

April 3, 2002

Sara Robinson

In January, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers essentially dissolved its 1700-member Iranian section. Its members were told that they could still receive print publications of the IEEE but could no longer use the IEEE logo, receive awards or funding, host conferences, or access IEEE journals electronically.

The affected scientists were quick to respond. They put up an informational Web site (www.ieeesanctions.org) and started collecting signatures on a petition seeking to overturn the "policy change," which also affects about one hundred IEEE members in Cuba, Sudan, Libya, and Burma. By the middle of March, almost 800 IEEE members had signed.

But the IEEE says that it cannot reverse its action, because it was not the result of an internal policy change. Rather, it was taken to ensure IEEE compliance with trade regulations of the U.S. Treasury Department, said Matt Loeb, the IEEE's director of corporate strategy and communications. A trade embargo against Iran, in place since 1995, prohibits U.S. entities from providing most goods and services to residents of Iran, with violators subject to fines and potentially even prison terms.

" The issue was called to our attention and we immediately took the action we deemed necessary to reinforce our commitment to compliance with U.S. Treasury department regulations," Loeb said. "We are going to look at what we might be able to do to influence a change in policy."

Over the past year, regulations affecting the participation of Iranians in U.S. professional societies have been complemented by tightened visa restrictions. This means that Iranians seeking student visas or permission to attend conferences will face increased scrutiny and delays. A bill passed by the House and being debated in the Senate would severely limit the issuing of any nonimmigrant visas at all to Iranians and citizens of the six other countries listed as "state sponsors of terrorism."

"The situation is still evolving, but the bottom line is things are going to be far more intense in terms of scrutiny," said Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, director and associate dean for international students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We're bracing ourselves."

A Focus On Iran
Iranians are not the sole target of tightened restrictions. Iran is one of five countries subject to broad trade embargoes, and only one of 20 countries whose citizens are subjected to increased scrutiny when applying for visas. But Iran is unique in that it has a particularly large and active scientific community and in that the restrictions are relatively recent.

The limits on Iranians are of concern to the many Iranians living in the U.S., many of whom have friends or colleagues in Iran. Even Iranian-born U.S. citizens and permanent residents cannot attend Iranian conferences without obtaining a license.

"If we are not allowed to have academic contact back in Iran, I don't see how the situation is ever going to change," said Amin Shokrollahi, an Iranian citizen and mathematician who lives in California, where he is chief scientist of a high-tech company.

But restrictions on Iranian scientists, already severe, are likely only to tighten in the post-September 11 political climate, people following the situation say, and students and scientists in Iran fear that they will be increasingly isolated. The dissolution of the IEEE section, in particular, was a great disappointment.

"It's very hard for them," said Fredun Hojabri, a California-based engineer and president of the Sharif University Association, an organization of international affiliates of the university, which is in Iran. "They are unanimously upset."

Membership in Professional Societies
The balancing of scientific and political goals is a topic of debate even within the American scientific community. Can an open dialog with scientists in countries whose governments are hostile to the U.S. make things better, or will it only exacerbate the situation?

Irving Lerch, director of international affairs for the American Physical Society, points out that restrictions, while sometimes necessary, can also have unintended consequences. "There are areas where every country has the right to protect its interest, but where you put the line is critical," said Lerch. At one point, he recalled, science critical to nuclear weapons research was more advanced in Japan than in the U.S., but Department of Energy restrictions denied U.S. scientists access to this technology. "The issue of whether a scientific exchange enhances the capabilities of terrorists requires a calculation, a kind of risk-benefit analysis," he added. "This is a difficult thing to do."

"The scientific community transcends national boundaries" said Umesh Vazirani, an Indian professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, echoing Lerch's concerns. "Anything that undercuts scientific research efforts should be done with extreme caution and reluctance."

While scientists from Cuba have been isolated for decades, Iran became a target of full sanctions only in 1995. Moreover, the restrictions applied to Iran are particularly stringent, not only limiting financial transactions but prohibiting any U.S. resident or organization from funding conferences in Iran, or from attending conferences there without a special license. Iranians can receive print publications, which are explicitly exempted from the embargo, but they cannot obtain funding or receive "services," such as electronic access to journals.

For now, Iranians can still apply for visas to attend American conferences, although they have to travel to other countries to do so. Moreover, the application process can be time consuming at best, and visas are not always granted.

The IEEE dismantled its Iranian section after attempting to organize a conference in Iran; the organizers had discovered that such an activity would violate the U.S. Treasury Department embargo. The IEEE plans to do as much as it can for its Iranian colleagues, within the limits of the law, Loeb said.

For SIAM, a much smaller organization than the APS or the IEEE, there have never been enough Iranian members to justify a section or a conference, said SIAM executive director James Crowley. Membership in SIAM continues to be open to everyone, regardless of nationality or residency.

"We will keep our members informed of developments that could affect them," Crowley said.

The American Physical Society also has no membership restrictions based on nationality or residency. "If a citizen of an embargoed country seeks membership and can pay the membership fee legally, we have no objection and we will consider that scientist a member of the American Physical Society," Lerch said. "What members we do have obtained their memberships before the embargo was enacted, while they were resident in the U.S. or Europe, or while on travel. If they are sustaining their memberships, it must be via legal means; otherwise the transaction would be confiscated by the bank."

Lerch added that American Physical Society members are able to interact with scientists from the embargoed countries at conferences sponsored by international organizations that the U.S. has joined, such as the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics, a disciplinary union of the International Council for Science. Such events qualify for a general license, Lerch said, and American scientists can attend them without difficulty. (Scientists, journalists, and other professionals may also travel to Cuba to attend professional functions if they first apply for a specific license.)

The APS also paves the way for foreign scientists, including Iranians, to get visas to attend its major conferences, said Lerch, by alerting consulates and prompting attendees to apply for visas well in advance. If the conference is sponsored by an international scientific union, the National Academy of Sciences is enlisted to intervene directly with the State Department's Bureau for Consular Affairs to ease the visa application process.

Student Visas
For Iranian students, however, the situation is even more difficult. A series of new laws and directives will introduce new hurdles for Iranian citizens wishing to study at U.S. universities.

Following the events of September 11, members of Congress quickly introduced bills and directives that would increase scrutiny of student visa applicants and the tracking of student visa holders once they enter the U.S. Some state legislatures have introduced separate bills of their own. In Florida, a bill now being debated in the Florida House of Representatives would ban state financial aid to students from countries on the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors.

Federal law now requires male visa seekers between the ages of 15 and 45 who are citizens of Iran and 24 other "high-risk" countries to submit additional background information, including personal and professional affiliations, employment records, and precise definitions of funding sources.

The additional procedures are expected to lengthen the visa process by a minimum of 20 days, and probably by far more, raising concerns about whether students from high-risk countries will be able to start school in a timely manner. "It's definitely a concern that some students won't make it in time for fall semester," said Ted Goode, director of services for international students and scholars at the University of California, Berkeley. His office has asked departments to streamline their admission processes so that students will get their documents much earlier than in the past.

Guichard-Ashbrook also expressed concern that some students could be subject to surveillance. Government agencies now hold broad power to hold students for questioning if there is suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities.

What's more, the "Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Act of 2001," passed by the House in December, would place a general ban on the issuing of visas to nationals of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. Only the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Attorney General, would be able to waive this restriction if the applicant is deemed not to "pose a threat to the safety or national security of the United States."

It's not yet clear whether the waiver process would be automatic or used only in rare cases. "The language is ominous," says Guichard-Ashbrook. "I'd be surprised if it were that routine." A less ominous-sounding version of the bill is now under consideration by the Senate.

Meanwhile, Guichard-Ashbrook says, new regulations will have no impact on the MIT admissions process, a sentiment echoed by Goode of Berkeley. "At MIT we admit the best, brightest people we can regardless of their nationality," Guichard-Ashbrook added. "It will just be harder to get them here."

Sara Robinson is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California.

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