Researchers Eagerly Visit Iran
Researchers Eagerly Visit Iran
Lifting of 20-Year Ban Opens Doors to Scholars from the United States
By Tamara Keith,
When Iran recently reopened its doors to U.S. researchers, university scholars jumped at the chance to explore its flora and fauna.
It had been 20 years since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when American researchers were banned from studying the country. Then, last year, Iran's new president Khatami told the United Nations that he welcomed educational exchange with the United States.
For the handful of Berkeley professors who have traveled recently to Iran, making the journey had everything to do with scholarship and little to do with politics.
"We're interested in animals; we could care less about politics," said James Patton, professor of integrative biology and curator of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. "If we can get visas or entry into an area, no matter how politically sensitive or dangerous, I wouldn't think twice about going."
"Iran has always been a great mystery spot on the map," added Ted Papenfuss, professor of integrative biology.
Papenfuss, who traveled to Iran in June with a group of researchers from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, is keenly interested in Iran's reptiles and amphibians. He said the country is rich in unique fauna. "Because of its geographic location, between Asia and Europe, Iran is extremely interesting biologically," he said. "It has a mixing of these different animal species.
"The fact that we were even allowed into the country as a large research team is a sign that president Khatami's suggestion is working," he added.
The museum team also included Patton; Mark Moffett, an entomologist and museum research associate; and undergraduate student Sheda Morshed, who was born in Iran.
Securing visas was problematic: it took six months to get them, so travel had to be postponed until the visas were ready.
But once the team made it into the country, the Iranians made them feel completely welcome, Patton said. "I don't think I've ever been in a country that was more hospitable. But there were clear boundaries that we had to fit within."
The "boundaries" included escort by half a dozen Iranian soldiers.
"There was an expressed concern for our safety," said Patton.
The team traveled extensively in the eastern region of the country along the Afghan border, considered to be the most dangerous part. Patton said that, without the guards, the government probably wouldn't have let them go there.
And, he said, the guards were helpful.
"Within a very short period of time, we became close colleagues," said Patton. Packing their AK-47s, "the soldiers were out there helping us gather lizards."
Every time the Berkeley group visited a town with a university, Iranian professors and students joined them in their field work.
"One thing that was very clear is that the intellectual community in Iran is starving for outside contact," he noted. "One library we went to didn't have any foreign scientific literature published since 1979."
Morshed, currently a Berkeley undergraduate, hopes to return to her Iranian homeland to work on conservation issues, after she gets her Ph.D. She said she is encouraged by the relationships forming between U.S. and Iranian researchers.
"This is going to be so beneficial to Iran," she said. "Biology really has no boundaries. There is so much to do in that country. To get foreigners in there is going to bring in money and techniques that haven't really been introduced to the scientific community."
During its five weeks in Iran this June and July, the Berkeley vertebrate zoology team gathered 700-900 reptiles and frogs and 200 mammal specimens.
A smaller group from the University and Jepson Herbaria went to Iran in May. The team, which consisted of museum scientist Fosiee Tahbaz and associate research botanist Barbara Ertter, was the first group of U.S. field biologists to be officially invited to Iran since the revolution. Ertter's visa request went through in just three days.
During their stay, they made presentations and visited herbaria at five Iranian universities, including the University of Tehran's College of Agriculture, where they were welcomed graciously by faculty and students.
The team also collected hundreds of plant specimens from the northern and central regions of Iran. Because those are stable areas, Tahbaz and Ertter were able to travel and collect plants on their own or accompanied only by university scientists.
Ertter said that areas of the United States and Iran have much in common, biologically.
"If you were trying to look around the world for a place with the most biogeographical similarities to Western North America for doing a variety of comparative studies, Iran would be near the top of the list," she said. "I hadn't realized just how many similarities there were until I went there."