UC Berkeley scientists eagerly visit Iran, which for 20 years had banned U.S. scholars

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- When Iran recently reopened its doors to United States researchers, a group of scholars from the University of California, Berkeley, jumped at the chance to explore its flora and fauna, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians and urban trees.

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 a handful of UC Berkeley professors who recently have traveled to Iran, making the journey had everything to do with science and very 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 at UC Berkeley's 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 this past June with a group of researchers from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, especially was 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 biologically interesting," he said. "It has a mixing of these different animal species."

He added that "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."

The museum team also included Patton; Mark Moffett, an entomologist and research associate at the museum; and undergraduate student Sheda Morshed, who was born in Iran.

Getting visas for the trip was problematic. It took six months to get them, and the travel plans had to be postponed because the visas weren't ready.

But once the team made it into the country, Patton said Iranian hospitality made them feel completely welcome.

"I don't think I've ever been in a country that was more hospitable," he said. "But there were clear boundaries that we had to fit within."

These boundaries included being escorted around the country by half a dozen Iranian soldiers.

"There was an expressed concern for our safety," said Patton.

The team traveled extensively in the eastern part 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. "The soldiers were out there helping us gather lizards with their AK-47s."

Every time the UC 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 said. "One library we went to didn't have any foreign scientific literature published since 1979."

Morshed, the UC Berkeley undergraduate, hopes to return to her Iranian homeland after she gets her PhD to work on conservation issues. She said she is encouraged by the relationships forming between United States 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."

The vertebrate zoology team from UC Berkeley was in Iran for five weeks in June and July and 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.

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 on their own or accompanied only by university scientists and collecting plants without military guards.

Ertter said that parts 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."

Ertter, whose research focuses mostly on the Western United States, said the similarities between the two countries can help scientists address a variety of land management questions. For example, certain noxious plants are less of a problem in Iran than they are in the United States, she said, possibly because of different insects and other biocontrol agents.

Ertter had wanted to visit Iran for many years and was eager to go once the political environment in the country changed.

"Part of the appeal was also being able to take advantage of the opportunity to botanize in a place that had been off limits to American researchers for two decades," she said. "It's the kind of fascination that was behind the Iron Curtain or China before it was opened."

Fosiee Tahbaz was a full professor of botany at the University of Tehran before the revolution. In 1979, she was on sabbatical leave from UC Davis when the revolution took place.

"Because of those changes, I preferred to stay here," said Tahbaz, who joined the UC Berkeley herbaria in 1985.

For Tahbaz, this research trip was especially significant.

"It was very exciting for me because I was returning to Iran after 20 years," she said.

She said her country's universities are in need of help and that UC Berkeley should help them through a scientific exchange.

"The University of Tehran and other universities in Iran need to have an educational relationship with universities from other countries," she said. "The faculty members want to learn about progress in science in technology. They are hungry for information. Also, the students would love to have a relationship with the United States."

A UC Berkeley forestry professor took the same opportunity to include Tehran in an international study of urban trees.

Near Eastern studies professor Guitty Azarpay also visited Iran recently. A native of Iran, she was able to do research, supervise graduate students and attend conferences during her visits there in the past three years.

She currently is setting up an exchange program to allow research and study in the two countries by students and professors from the United States and Iran. A three-year graduate student fellowship, inaugurated this year, also will support an Iranian student in art and archaeology on the UC Berkeley campus.

"I hope for an opportunity in the near future for American scholars to begin the exchange with their Iranian counterparts so that both can benefit from joint cultural ventures," said Azarpay. "I think it is very encouraging that the government is supporting these ventures."


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