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 Botanist Fosiee Tahbaz, coordinator of the American-Iranian Botanical Program, photographs a rarely sighted wild orchid during a 2004 botanizing foray to western Iran, undertaken with several of her Iranian colleagues. (Photo courtesy of Fosiee Tahbaz)

A plant-based diet for small-planet diplomats
Can botanical exchanges between the U.S. and Iran play the peacemaking role that ping-pong did 30 years ago?

| 14 February 2007

As measured by international time zones or teenage girls' hemlines, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the American West are worlds apart. Yet as viewed through the lens of geography, geology, or climate, the nation- state and western United States have worlds in common - sharing not only the same northern latitudes but, in significant measure, important topographical features (large central plateaus, with interior-draining basins, lying between mountain ranges), Mediterranean climates, active earthquake faults, and (due in large part to these other similarities) a notably rich flora, with hundreds of plant species in common.

It's the latter that U.S. and Iranian plant experts have been exploring for the better part of a decade through the American-Iranian Botanical Program (AIBP). The scientific exchange was initiated by Fosiee Tahbaz, an Iranian botanist affiliated with Berkeley's University and Jepson herbaria.

In 1999, Iran's then-President Mohammad Khatami expressed interest in renewing the kinds of educational exchanges with U.S. scholars that had been deep-sixed by decades of tension between the U.S. and Iranian governments.

"I thought, 'This is a good time to be reconciled and reopen a scientific relationship,'" recalls the Sorbonne-educated scientist, who credits her father's interest in the medicinal properties of plants (he was the Iranian army's first pharmacist) for her early attraction to botany. Tahbaz penned a letter to President Khatami, via the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, proposing such an exchange. Not long afterward, she received an official communiqué on letterhead bearing the inscription "In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful." It gave U.S. botanists permission to visit a number of Iranian universities, including the University of Tehran's College of Agriculture - where Tahbaz had been the first female professor and had taught for many years.

Berkeley's botanical ambassadors

Acting expeditiously on the invitation, Tahbaz and colleague Barbara Ertter, curator of Western North American flora at Berkeley's herbaria, donned modest "hejab" clothing - headscarves and long coats - for an initial visit to host institutions in Iran. There they presented scientific lectures, met with faculty and students, and collected native plants, for preservation and study, with their Iranian colleagues. The Iranians rolled out the red carpet, Ertter recalls. "It was like being 'wined and dined,' but instead we were 'tea-ed and kebab-ed.'"

Wherever they went, Tahbaz adds, Iranians "told us that we were doing ping-pong diplomacy," like the table-tennis players whose cultural exchange helped break the ice between the U.S. and China in the 1970s. Her primary goal for AIBP is to "continue the botanical relationship of Iran and the U.S., regardless of the politics." Specifically, Tahbaz hopes to provide cross-training opportunities between botanists of the two nations, create a network of U.S. scientists to assist Iranian botanists in conducting research and publishing their results, and collect Iranian plant specimens for preservation at both Berkeley's University Herbarium and scientific collections in Iran.

Forays in Farsi

So far, under AIBP's auspices, three delegations of U.S. scientists have visited a total of 10 Iranian universities. The program has also hosted monthlong stays for two Iranian scientists, including botanizing forays and working visits to herbaria in California and other Western states; one Iranian graduate student, thanks to connections forged, is currently doing her Ph.D. work at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. In 2002, Berkeley professors Brent Mishler and Dan Norris, both experts in bryology (the study of mosses and liverworts), joined Tahbaz and Ertter for a visit to Iran involving lectures at universities there and plant-collecting in the highlands of the Zagros and Alborz mountain ranges.


Professor Brent Mishler, left, gives a tour of Berkeley's University Herbarium to academic colleagues from the University of Tehran's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources: Professor Bahman Yazdi Samadi (in vest) and Chancellor Abbas Ali Zali (at right). Fosiee Tahbaz, curator of Middle Eastern flora at the Berkeley herbaria, looks on as well. (Cathy Cockrell photo)
 

"Sometimes when we were doing field work in Iran, the appearance of the plant communities made you feel for a moment that you were home in California," notes Mishler, who directs Berkeley's two herbaria and supports AIBP's ongoing efforts. "What struck me the most about the moss flora is how many genera and species are in common [between California and Iran]. I was also struck by the lushness of the bryophytes (and forests) up along the shores of the Caspian Sea. Not at all the stereotypical Iranian desert!"

Physical similarities between Iran, California, and other parts of the American West offer tantalizing possibilities for research, with potential implications for resource-management policy in both countries. Reporting on the 2002 expedition in the "Jepson Globe" newsletter, Ertter recalled observing Tamarix ramosissima, a Middle Eastern native shrub known as salt-cedar or tamarisk, "acting as a well-behaved member of the local community, leaving me to wonder what kept it from forming the monocultures that has made tamarisk the bane of desert waterways in the southwestern United States."

Flammable everywhere and invasive in the United States, tamarisk is crowding out native vegetation throughout much of the American West; so is Bromus tectorum, or cheatgrass, even though, curiously, both plants remain in check in Iran. David Charlet, a biology professor at the Community College of Southern Nevada, was struck by these contradictions during a spring 2004 expedition to Iran with colleagues from Berkeley, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, and Arizona State University.

Science cuts across boundaries

For Charlet, these observations raise questions of potential relevance back home - some of which he shared last year in a plenary address at a U.S. Forest Service symposium on shrubland management. Like the rest of his U.S. colleagues on the 2004 expedition, Charlet has developed ongoing scholarly relationships with a number of Iranian graduate students. And in his classrooms, his heightened ability to cite Iranian flora has encouraged students of Middle Eastern origin to become more vocal.

"It's been very positive," he adds, for U.S.-born students "to hear from their Middle Eastern peers about the region and culture, rather than only getting their information on conditions from CNN, Fox, blogs, and/or The Daily Show."

"Science cuts across political and religious boundaries," notes Berkeley's Mishler. "We and our colleagues in Iran share identical goals in understanding and conserving our native plants, and in educating students and the general public about their beauty and vulnerabilities."

U.S. scientists involved in AIBP hope to return to the Zagros Mountains this summer on a plant-collecting expedition funded by the National Geographic Society. It will be co-led by Ihsan Al-Shehbaz of the Missouri Botanical Garden, who was curator of Baghdad's principal herbarium before being pink-slipped by Saddam Hussein, and Shahin Zarre, curator of Tehran's main herbarium. Given ongoing political developments in the region, however, "it's looking bleaker and bleaker," laments Ertter. "Breaking news is that one of the Shiite militia groups in Iraq has just fled across the border to this part of Iran. If so, this is not where I want to spend my summer vacation."

But "even if we have to take a hiatus from traveling for now," she adds, "I hope that the foundation we've laid, the personal ties between scientists already established, will continue."

Says Tahbaz: "I receive all the time e-mails from botanists and botany students from Iran; they appreciate such a unique and beautiful program. I'm proud to connect these two groups of botanists from two countries."

For information on the American-Iranian Botanical Program or the fund to support its ongoing efforts, visit ucjeps.berkeley.edu/main/research/iran or contact Fosiee Tahbaz at clematis@berkeley.edu or Staci Markos at 642-2465.