Burton Richter, right, an American Nobel laureate in physics who spoke at Sharif University in Tehran, called the students there “very impressive.” (By Newsha Tavakolian — Polaris)

By Thomas Erdbrink, Washington Post Foreign Service – TEHRAN — As Burton Richter, an American Nobel laureate in physics, entered the main auditorium of Tehran’s prestigious Sharif University, hundreds of students rose to give him a loud and lengthy ovation. But Richter, wearing a white suit and leaning on a cane, said he was the one who should be awed.

“The students here are very impressive,” Richter said, lauding the high level of education at Sharif. “I expect to hear a lot more from you all in the future.”

The students, young men and women with laptops and smart briefcases, giggled in their seats. A woman took pictures of the Stanford professor emeritus, whose visit last month was part of a privately funded academic program run by the National Academies of the United States and universities in Iran.

“Mr. Richter is an example for us,” explained Ismael Hosseini, a 23-year-old electrical engineering student who had managed to get a seat near the stage. “But soon I will be able to listen to an Iranian scientist who has received a Nobel Prize for his or her work,” he said. “We are all studying and researching hard to receive this honor.”

Iran’s determination to develop what it says is a nuclear energy program is part of a broader effort to promote technological self-sufficiency and to see Iran recognized as one of the world’s most advanced nations. The country’s leaders, who three decades ago wrested the government away from a ruler they saw as overly dependent on the West, invest heavily in scientific and industrial achievement, but critics say government backing is sometimes erratic, leaving Iran’s technological promise unfulfilled.

Still, Iranian scientists claim breakthroughs in nanotechnology, biological researchers are pushing the boundaries of stem cell research and the country’s car industry produces more cars than anywhere else in the region.

“Iran wants to join the group of countries that want to know about the biggest things, like space,” Richter said to the students during his speech at Sharif University, which draws many of the country’s best students. Every year, 1.5 million young Iranians take a national university entrance exam, or “concours.” Of the 500,000 who pass and are entitled to free higher education, only the top 800 can attend Sharif, considered Iran’s MIT.

At Sharif, students work in fields including aerospace and nanotechnology. While some end up advancing Iran’s nuclear program or finding work in other technological fields in Iran, many, especially PhD candidates, are lured by employers or universities in Australia, Canada and the United States.

“Our visitors are flabbergasted when they come to our modern laboratories and see women PhD students. Often they had a completely different image of Iran, not as an academic country,” said Abdolhassan Vafai, a professor at Sharif. “Here, we educate our students to solve problems that affect all humanity, like hunger, global warming and water shortages.”

But in Iran, scientists are also expected to serve ideological goals. Iran’s leaders hold up their inventions as proof that the country’s 1979 revolution has made it independent and self-sufficient.

When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opened Iran’s first space center in February, he issued a launch order sending a test missile into space and proclaimed that “no power can overcome Iran’s will.”

Iran hopes to launch its second satellite — the first was launched commercially by a Russian company — within weeks, using a locally made rocket. Iran’s advances in this field cannot be independently verified.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has encouraged scientific breakthroughs for geopolitical reasons. “If you are in pursuit of a science, you bring dissatisfaction and displeasure to the enemy of the revolution’s aspirations,” Khamenei said during a visit to Iran’s stem cell research center in 2006.

In 1979, revolutionaries accused Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country’s U.S.-backed autocrat, of having made Iran dependent on other states for technology, military equipment and industrial hardware.

During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the country faced an enemy supported by superpowers that isolated Iran. Squadrons of U.S.-made F-4 fighter jets were grounded because of U.S. sanctions that barred Iran’s access to spare parts.

“In the war, the whole world was against us. We learned that we had to stand on our own two feet,” said Manoucher Manteqi, chief executive of Iran’s largest carmaker, Iran Khodro. The state-run company produced more than 600,000 cars in 2007 and has no equivalent in the Middle East. India’s Tata Motors produced just over 400,000 vehicles in 2007; French automaker Peugeot Citroen — with which Iran Khodro has a joint venture — makes about 3.5 million vehicles a year worldwide.

“The sanctions forced us to use our full potential. We are now commercializing what we learned back then,” explained Manteqi, who wore a worker’s coat to show unity with his assembly-line colleagues during an interview in March.

Iranians worry about the impact of U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. “They will lead to limitations in our cooperation with other countries,” Manteqi said. “But they also mean that others cannot use Iran’s potential, like foreign carmakers we want to cooperate with. Iran needs 1.5 million cars a year — this is an interesting market. Under sanctions, we might have to do things ourselves, but we are used to that.”

“If the West refuses Iran nuclear technology, it means they might pressure us in the future over development of other technologies,” said Nasser Aghdami of the Royan stem cell institute in Tehran. The state-sponsored facility does research on human embryonic stem cells. “Our religious authorities have decided that we can do research on fetuses until 4 months old,” he explained.

“We exchange information with scientists in the U.S. I feel science should be above politics,” Aghdami said.

But when he wanted to order a new ultracentrifuge machine needed for research, he found that his foreign counterparts weren’t allowed to send the equipment to Iran because it was considered “dual use” — technology that could be applied to Iran’s nuclear program. The nuclear centrifuges that Iran produces cannot be used for stem cell research.

“This shows that we still need a lot of willpower to achieve our goal,” Aghdami said. Iranian stem cell scientists are already involved in efforts to reprogram skin cells into embryonic cells in order to bypass ethical problems, he said. “Only three other countries — Germany, the U.S. and Japan — are involved in this. We are proud to compete with the best.”

Persia, as Iran was known until the 19th century, made discoveries in the natural sciences, mathematics and philosophy. After the Arab-Islamic invasion in the 7th century, Persian scientists developed medical alcohol and made important contributions in algebra and chemistry.

“Everybody wants their kids to study here. Step into a taxi in Tehran and the driver will tell you this is his second job to support his kids in university,” said Hashem Rafii-Tabar, a professor at a research institute in Tehran. He returned to his homeland six years ago to set up a department for nanotechnology for a consortium of nine Iranian universities. His students are making conceptual designs for nanodevices that can identify and destroy individual cancer cells.

“We have high ambitions,” Rafii-Tabar explained. “Already we are the number one in nanotechnology in the region, maybe only equaled by Israel. Iran produces more papers on this subject in international scientific indexed publications than any other country in the region. However, Iran has not yet submitted patents, official new inventions. Its regional competitors have also not reached this stage.”

The Iranian government supports the nanotechnology project. Last month a nanotechnology supercomputing center was opened, financed by the government.

Rafii-Tabar observed that science projects in Iran often take off with a flying start but later run aground. “When a new field of research comes to Iran, it incubates, goes on to be taught at the famous universities, but revolutions and changes of government have stopped projects in the past,” he said. “We used to be big in IT, but we still need foreign software for our ATM machines.”

At Iran Khodro’s factory west of Tehran, the day shift had just ended. But Manteqi, the CEO, was not leaving. “I should work harder than everyone else, because many things still go wrong,” he explained with a smile. “As the late Ayatollah Khomeini said: ‘If we want it, we can do it.’ We have more experts and professionals in Iran than in any of the neighboring countries. If they are managed properly, we can fulfill our ambitions. Iran can do this in cooperation with the rest of the world, but, if needed, we can also do it by ourselves.”

Topographic map of
the Middle East,
click for larger image

The ancient cultures of the Middle East and the modern political conflicts there are shaped by a surprisingly diverse and youthful landscape. The landscape of the region is dominated by a narrow elongate (20-30 km wide) valley, that is surrounded by the western highlands of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and the eastern highlands of Jordan. Much of this valley is below sea level, including the deepest place on the Earth surface, the Dead Sea at –420 meters. The topographic barriers were significant enough to help create different kingdoms and cultures, yet not significant enough to prevent interaction among these cultures through commerce and war. The north-south oriented valley was also an important migration route for early humans, and is still a migration route for flora and fauna, particularly, birds, from Africa to Eurasia.

Dead Sea at Sunrise,
click for larger image

The Dead Sea Valley is not a true tectonic rift but is part of a continental transform, a tectonic plate boundary that laterally offsets the Arabian tectonic plate against the African tectonic plate. Other continental transforms, such as the San Andreas and the Northern Anatolian faults, do not exhibit a rift-like topography. Therefore, some other forces or processes must be active here in addition to the lateral displacement of two plates.

The Peace Treaty between Jordan and Israel, and the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians opened the door for scientists to cooperate in projects that tackle this question, although the security situation and the occasional conflicts, still pose substantial hurdles.

Training session in
seismic instrumentation,
click for larger image

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Middle Eastern Regional Cooperation Program (MERC) has funded two multinational projects of geophysical study of the Dead Sea rift and its surrounding. The first project was conducted between 1996-1998 by the Geophysical Institute of Israel, the Natural Resources Authority of Jordan, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Its goal was to merge of the Jordanian and Israeli data bases of the gravity field and conduct joint interpretation. The second project was conducted between 2001-2005 by the Geophysical Institute of Israel, Al-Balqa’ Applied University of Jordan, Al-Najah University in the Palestinian Authority, and the U.S. Geological Survey. It had two goals, to map the subsurface fault structure using a high-resolution airborne magnetic survey across the international border, and to study the deep structure of the plate boundary and its surrounding highlands using seismic refraction methods.

The primary objectives of these projects were (1) to delineate subsurface sedimentary basins and faults along the Dead Sea Rift to be used in exploration of groundwater, oil, earthquake hazard assessment and infrastructure projects, such as the Dead Sea-Red Sea Canal; (2) to demonstrate the suitability of advanced geophysical methods in this environment; (3) to transfer technology to the various project participants and (4) to promote peace in the Middle East through scientific and economic cooperation.

Sheep herders in the
Jordan River Valley,

Jordan River Valley
near Jericho,

Historic Innovation, Modern Solutions

Cutting-edge science in the Middle East

An engraving of Muslim pioneer astronomer Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040)
A page from Avicenna’s seminal tome of medical learning, Canons of Medicine
Begun in 1898, Egypt’s Aswan Dam was expanded with Soviet support in the 1960s
Workmen in this undated photo use a water screw to help in irrigating fields in Egypt’s Nile Delta.
A young woman pauses from shopping to talk on a cellular telephone in a Kuwaiti shop, c. 2000

Following the rise of Islam in the seventh century C.E., science and technology flourished in the Islamic world to a far greater extent than they did in the West. Muslim rulers promoted the translation of Greek philosophy and science texts, and then encouraged further scientific exploration in numerous fields, among them mathematics, astronomy, medicine, pharmacology, optics, chemistry, botany, philosophy, and physics.

In mathematics, Muslim scholars introduced the use of zero, solutions to quadratic equations — even the Arabic word “algebra.”

Muslim astronomers knew the Earth was round and calculated its diameter. Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040) explored momentum, gravity, and optics 600 years before Galileo was accused of heresy for arguing that the Earth orbited the Sun.

Medicine was one of the most important fields of endeavor. Muslim doctors were surgically removing cataracts and treating kidney and gallstones while Europeans were still using leeches on their patients. Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna, 980-1037) wrote al-Qanun fi al-Tibb, or the Canons of Medicine, a seminal volume that was the first to recognize the contagious nature of tuberculosis, identify meningitis, and describe all the minute parts of the eye. By the 12th century, the Canons had been translated into Latin, and European medicine relied on this text until well into the 1700s.

Much of the knowledge developed by the Muslims and transmitted to the Europeans enabled Europe to emerge from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance.

The technological advance of the West

During the 16th century, the Ottoman astronomer Taqi al-Din made astronomical tables that were considered at least as accurate as those of fellow 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe of Denmark, whose observations of the planets served as the basis for Kepler’s Laws of planetary motion. Only a century later, though, the Ottomans and their Muslim contemporaries in Mughal India and the Persian Safavid Empire ceased to support scientific research and innovations.

This change was due in part to the shifting priorities and educational systems of these empires. Not unlike Europe in previous centuries, groups wanting to protect the status quo became more powerful than those advocating growth and experimentation. Meanwhile, building on the earlier accomplishments of Muslim scientists, Europe’s scientific and industrial revolutions began to give the West a military and economic advantage over the Islamic world.

By the 19th century, when Middle Eastern states like Egypt, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire decided to develop modern infrastructure, including railroads and telegraph lines, the work had to be contracted to foreign firms. The cash-strapped Middle Eastern governments sold concessions — the right to develop and then profit from these infrastructure development projects — to European companies. These opportunities gave European governments an interest in influencing Middle Eastern regimes, in order to both win the contracts and then protect their investments. In this way, the technological and industrial capabilities of the West reinforced its political and economic power in the region. Technological dependence on the West, however, was seen as a threat to the independence of the Islamic world, and resentment against Western power began to rise.

Technological advances in the modern Middle East

Historically, some of the most important technological achievements in the Middle East were related to the use of water, from the ancient Iranian qanats (underground canals that brought water from the mountains to the arid plain) to the modern dam systems on the Nile and Euphrates Rivers.

In 1898, the Aswan Dam became the first major modern dam project, resulting in the successful damming of the Nile. In the 1960s, an expansion of the Aswan Dam was built with Soviet support.

Unfortunately, while these Nile dams regulated the water flow to cropland, generated vital electricity, and shielded Egypt from years of drought, they also introduced environmental problems that have cast a shadow on their overall success. Since the Nile no longer floods, the rich silt that used to fertilize Egyptian fields is instead accumulating in Lake Nasser behind the Aswan Dam. As a result, farmers downstream are forced to use massive amounts of artificial fertilizers, which in turn run off into, and pollute, the Nile.

The overall aridity of the region has motivated some of the richer countries to search for technological solutions to their water requirements. Through sustained investment in research, they have become experts in water desalination, water recycling, and solar energy. The region’s oil-poor countries, however, Egypt among them, cannot afford such advanced technologies and remain dependent on more traditional water resources.

Scientific discovery and technological implementation varies widely in the Middle East today. Israel’s current position as a technological leader and its close economic relationship with the West stand in sharp contrast to its Arab neighbors. Israel, for example, is a world leader in the development of voice-recognition software for computers.

Access to technology

As in other regions of the world, access to technology parallels the disparity in lifestyles throughout the region. Some people are scarcely aware of the Internet, while others make their living from it. Even so, cheap, portable technologies are transforming the Middle East.

Cellular phones, for example, are increasingly popular in the Middle East, providing telephone access in more remote communities as well as in crowded urban areas. Wireless service bypasses the difficult and expensive requirements for laying out and maintaining telephone cables.

Satellite television news stations like Al-Jazeera provide new and varied sources of information to people in the Middle East who once had access only to government-controlled media. The Internet may have a similar effect.

Internet cafes have sprung up in major cities and in regional centers throughout the Middle East, providing access to news and information for people who cannot afford to buy a computer themselves. In some nations, however, the government is the only Internet provider and may censor the available content.

Oil-poor countries do not have the economic resources to take advantage of these new technologies. The ability to access new technology is related to both economic resources and political openness.