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Tuesday, 18 June 2013 18:15

Why Washington Fears Iran? (Part 2)

It is obvious that the US is scared stiff of Iran’s spectacular progress, but there is nothing it can do to stop.


A 2010 Canadian report on the "geo-political shift in knowledge creation" admits that scientific output has grown 11 times faster in Iran than the global average - faster than in any other country in the world. I recall reading this tidbit three years ago and wondering how that could be right. In previous trips to Iran, I couldn't say that I ever noted visible signs of ‘unusual progress.' I don't think most Iranians think much about this either. Discussing my interviews with friends and acquaintances during my visit, most seemed surprised, that this much development was going on under their noses. Every Iranian has an opinion on the country's nuclear energy program for the simple reason that this is the one ‘development project' they all know rarely is it out of the international headlines. This kind of hyper-scientific growth is essential, says Dr. Hamid Gourabi, president of the Royan Institute, a leader in stem cell and reproductive biomedicine in Iran: "Scientific progress can make countries independent - and apply pressure on others." If you think his message has political undertones, you are right. It is something I hear in all my meetings. "After the revolution, we decided instead of being dependent on oil, we should diversify into sciences and other areas."

Royan, a quasi-governmental institute, was established to solve a basic problem: young Iranian couples with fertility problems were having to travel outside the country and spend large sums of money to conceive. The organization started with very basic fertility treatments in 1991 and two years later the first in vitro fertilization (IVF) child was born in Tehran. With a 40 percent success rate, the institute now does more than 4,000 cycles every year - in Europe there are less than ten clinics that perform more than 1,000. Royan was playing catch-up with some of its early endeavors. In 2006 it cloned its first sheep, followed by two transgenic kid goats called Shangool and Mangool (named after popular children's characters in Iran), and then by calves - each using slightly different biotechnologies. Gourabi's institute is not ultimately interested in replicating other's successes though - it wants to forge its own way. He tells me about some important thinking that went on in Iran during the last decade-and-a-half, saying: "We wanted to expand in sciences, technologies - for example - we wanted to go into areas where Iran can bring leadership." But, he says, ultimately, "the scientific community is the main impetus behind this - they push the government." Then he adds with a twinkle that Iran's Supreme Leader "Khamenei has a huge interest in science." Since then Royan has branched out in all sorts of directions. Stem cell research is today the most advanced part of what the group does, and Iran, according to Gourabi, is now only the 8th nation in the world to produce scientific output on stem cells.

Gourabi also confirms that "sanctions have been a key motivator" for the rush to development. "One of the products we need cost us a million dollars to import. Now we produce it ourselves, it costs us very little. Iran sells biotech to other countries - we offer a lower cost than most companies." Gourabi, whose institute has been denied laser technology-based products by the US' restrictive sanctions regime, says with some confidence: "We will end up producing these drugs for ourselves, so pirating and patent-busting becomes prolific. And they (the West) lose a good market for their products."

He's not worried about the so-called isolation either, saying: "Sanctions do affect our work - time is important in science and sanctions cause delays - but we are contributing in a big way to the global scientific community now, and this collaboration helps us."

A decade ago, Iranian decision makers and scientists were trying to solve a large problem: "In less than 100 years, we will run out of all these oil resources. How do we have an economy then?" The prevalent thinking was that Iran needed to develop sectors that would help it create a "knowledge-based economy" where it could establish itself as a global leader. The country had underperformed on IT and biotech, so it took its time in studying the potential of nanotechnology. Three years later it decided to plunge in. "Our mission was to be among the top 15 countries in the world in all rings of the ‘value chain' - all the way from developing the human resources to commercialization and wealth creation," say Dr. Seyyed Mehdi Rezayat and Dr. Ali Beitollahi, senior officials at The Iran Nanotechnology Initiative Council (INIC). "Today, more than 14,000 are engaged in Iran's nanotech industry - a decade ago you couldn't count the number of people on two hands who understood what it meant," laughs Beitollahi.

The data starts flowing. In the past five years, Iran has registered 95 patents for nanotechnology products and processes. Dozens of Iranian universities have been corralled into creating graduate and doctoral programs in advanced nanotech. Because of sanctions and embargos, Iranians are making sophisticated machinery that they otherwise would have bought. Twenty five Iranian companies have now commercialized Nano equipment because nobody would sell it to them.

In a short time, the Islamic Republic has become one of only six nations involved in nanotech standardization - all others are Western countries (US, UK, Canada, and Germany), with the exception of Japan. The applications in nanotech are broad. From eco-efficiencies like coating glass that keeps heat out, to strengthening building materials in earthquake prone areas, to creating cancer drugs to water filtration and desalinization. Rezaiat says: "In high-tech you can get much more advanced benefit than from commercial technologies. Every kilogram of cement is just a few cents. The main cost of things is knowledge and technology, so why should a country like Iran stick to cement? We learned a lot of lessons from our previous lack of achievement," he reflects, adding, "We used to buy turnkey projects and we didn't even know what was inside." Now, says Rezaiat, "Nano has become a model for the country. We started from scratch - we will look, learn about everything."

A rigorous report published last week on Iran sanctions by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) says the following: "There is a growing body of opinion and Iranian assertions that indicates that Iran, through actions of the government and the private sector, is mitigating the economic effect of sanctions. Some argue that Iran might even benefit from sanctions over the long term by being compelled to diversify its economy and reduce dependence on oil revenues. Iran's 2013-2014 budget relies far less on oil exports than have previous budgets, and its exports of minerals, cement, urea fertilizer, and other agricultural and basic industrial goods are increasing substantially." A year ago I wrote an article titled "How Iran Changed the World." In it I warn that continued economic pressures on Iran will produce the unintended consequence of undermining Western hegemony very decisively. The US, after all, is aggressively challenging the Islamic Republic at a time when the entire Western financial and economic order is teetering on the brink of collapse, with no apparent safety net in sight. Iran is an extremely resourceful country of 78 million people, a huge export market for many nations keen to bolster their treasuries, and has major strategically valuable commodities - oil and gas - that people are keen to buy.

The tighter the sanctions, the more likely that Iran and its trading partners will seek innovative ways around them. In effect, by putting the screws on this important country (Iran is today the head of the 118-nation Non-Aligned Movement and increasingly protected by the emerging BRICS economies), the US is encouraging the development of alternative financial and economic practices that will fundamentally undermine - perhaps even destroy - its own global order. Every global power throughout history has ended its reign at the hands of an adversary, whether on the battlefield or in a grand power play that goes wrong. What Washington rightfully fears is that its three-decade-long tussle with the Islamic Republic is unwinnable - which is nothing short of defeat for the world's last superpower. Unable to get off its current trajectory of escalation, the US continues to seek new, illogical, increasingly indefensible ways to squeeze Iran's population. But the fact is that sanctions simply don't work: Iran is not going to stop its nuclear enrichment. Iranians aren't going to eject their government. This will not end well for the US. As for Iran...I'm not so worried about.

(By Shermine Narwani, who has recently visited the Islamic Republic; the Beirut-based al-Akhbar’s English edition)


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