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“Finding solutions together” – on German-Iranian science diplomacy

by Dennis Schroeder 

In times of crisis, science diplomacy can become an alternative channel of communication between states and national groups with contrary interests. In times of peace this form of “track 2 diplomacy” can help anticipate problems and challenge isolationist positions.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran we observed a transition from one science diplomacy paradigm to another. This change happened mainly[1] due to activities of German intermediary organizations for academic mobility and scientific collaboration like the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH) or the German Research Council (DFG). With opening its country office in Tehran in early 2014, DAAD paved the way for the transition to institutional collaboration and expanded person-to-person collaboration in politically thawing relations.

While the Nuclear Deal’s success story is well known, science diplomacy with Iran doesn’t stop at nuclear technology, but takes place across numerous topics. It will only gain further significance in the face of shared challenges such as environmental issues, sustainable energy supply questions and pandemics.

This paradigm shift is happening in terms of the acceptance on both sides - Iran and the “West” - regarding scientific collaborations. While collaboration with Iran or the West was seen as something undesirable by policy makers on both sides, it became en vogue especially since summer 2015 since when numerous scientific delegations from European countries, USA, China or Russia came to Iran, often reconnecting to previous colleagues from Iran who used to study abroad and maintained their networks. Nevertheless, already before global minded scientists collaborated - but they had to do so rather quietly or exclusively on paper. We can see efforts in general science collaboration exemplified in scientific co-authorship with other countries: one quarter of Iranian articles have a foreign co-author.[2]

Germany’s advantage is clearly its soft power approach, namely its Foreign Science Policy (“Außenwissenschaftspolitk”), and its actors on the ground fostering mobility and cooperation. Joint German-Iranian initiatives, mainly funded by DAAD, like summer schools or binational research in recent years range from urban planning to social inclusion and governance, to the joint discovery of more than 100 novel genes for recessive cognitive disorders. Diplomacy begins to play a role once we consider science and research together as key tools not only for scientific advancement in both parties’ interest, but for peace building and thus commit to re-inventing both the academic, but also personal ties that connect Iran with other countries.

Since 2013 and in collaboration with the relevant Iranian and German ministries, universities and scientists, DAAD has been able to re-establish a solid bridge between the German and Iranian academic communities, this in spite of tensions and weak political ties. In 2015 DAAD has sent over 600 Iranian scholars to Germany, most of them as part of joint research projects or young PhD students who plan to conduct a part or their whole doctorate abroad and brought over 100 Germans academics to the Islamic Republic. The DAAD country office in Tehran is being actively sought out and heavily frequented by interested students and representatives of the academic sector in order to learn more about opportunities regarding study and research in Germany. Regular visits to Iranian universities and consultations with the science ministry ensure an ongoing dialogue on joint interests and possible future endeavours such as co-funded scholarship programs or joint institutions. DAAD is also working together with GIZ and other stakeholders towards multilateral collaborations between Afghan, Iranian and German universities in the field of industrial development. Considering the growing threats of water scarcity in the region, which may eventually fuel future conflicts, the organization are also engaged in funding projects on sustainable water management.

The work of international scientific collaboration is both ultimately political and inherently intimate. In a country like Iran where almost everything can have a political dimension, science diplomacy demands strong personal relationships. Mutual respect, visible collaboration, political sensibility, intercultural understanding and patience are all essential components in any kind of endeavour of science diplomacy in order to build trust and support sustainable peace building. 

It is therefore important to continue and intensify the work with the many individuals and institutions which favour not only an economic, but also an academic opening of the country. Politically, the course has been set. The Iranian Ministry of Science, Research and Technology adapted a strong internationalization policy and continues hosting foreign delegations of scientists every other week. In 2015, more than 100 German scientists took part in such delegations discussing different topics and models of cooperation, as well as further internationalization.

This is just the beginning of the gradual opening process of Iran’s scientific landscape. Unfortunately, for every two steps ahead there is one step back due to political quarrels. The reality of ‚brain-drain’ couples with accusations of western influence on the Iranian youth. Most decision makers, however, understand that brain drain is happening first and foremost because of a desolate labour market, not suited to the demands of highly skilled Iranian graduates. Another rather new obstacle for science diplomacy and cooperation is the suspension of the US visa waiver for Europeans who travelled to Iran since 2011. With gradual changes around Iran’s international perception more scientists became less hesitant to interact with their Iranian counterparts. But now the US Congress’ new visa waiver bill denies visa free entry to the United States to those same people, whether they travelled to Iran as tourists, on business, or as science diplomats. This makes potential scientific and cultural delegates more hesitant and circumspect when considering travel to Iran.

We see that international science policy and diplomacy alone cannot offer all the answers to the perennial questions of peace, development or innovation. However, working in tandem with well-articulated global policies science diplomacy can contribute to surmounting some of the challenges posed by segmented thinking and silo approaches. My work in Iran until summer 2016 would not have been possible without passionate scientists and optimistic political actors. However, it still faces many obstacles. These range from remaining sanctions to consular issues to political pressures. Therefore, because science diplomacy is still not in the global mainstream it will be necessary in the future to do a better job integrating it into the fabric of foreign policy.

The author established the DAAD country office in Tehran and led it until summer 2016. Currently he is pursuing a Mid-Career Master in Public Administration at Harvard Kennedy School of Government with a focus on science policy and diplomacy.

The original version of this article first appeared in the April quarterly publication of “Science & Diplomacy” (AAAS April 2016).

[1] In February 2016, Germany was named the most important global partner for academic and scientific collaboration by both, the Iranian Ministry of Science, Research and Technology and various bodies of International Affairs of Iranian public and private universities.

[2] UNESCO Science Report 2015, p. 389,