02 September 2006

More on Iran

I'm starting a new post in response to the huge volume of commentary on my invitation to Iran. First I wanted to clarify exactly what the trip entails, since I didn't give any details the first time. I would be one of four academics teaching a one-week course on disease genetics. The course is being sponsored by the Research Center for Gastroenterology and Liver Diseases in Tehran. The other teachers (including the person who asked me to go) are English and Italian, so I would be the only American on the trip.

More comments below the fold.

The whole question being debated by many people in the original post (thanks for your interest, everyone) is basically about weighing risks and rewards, which is something we obviously do every day. Riding in a car on a highway carries a risk of being in a fatal accident, but nobody thinks twice about it, both because the risk is very small and because cars are a very convenient way to get around.

In my mind, the three risks are:

  1. Bodily harm. I think the chance of being killed because I'm an American is very slim. Indeed, I'd estimate the chance of dying on a highway in the UK to be higher than execution at the hands of the Ayatollah. Being the target of a terrorist attack is possible, but that's true in London as well, and in fact a lot more people have died in terrorist incidents in Europe in the last few years than in Iran.

  2. Arrest. Also extremely unlikely, but obviously with very serious
    consequences. I don't have much faith in Iranian
    jurisprudence. On the other hand, academics do visit Iran relatively often, and don't seem to have trouble. It's not in the interest of the government there to pointlessly harass invited guests.

  3. Being harassed when travelling in the US and Europe. I presume making
    academic visits to Iran puts you pretty much permanently in the latex
    gloves line at the airport.

Furthermore, with absolute respect for my friends who have been there, Iran is not Iraq. The US Department of State doesn't explicitly tell citizens not to go to Iran. It says, "The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran." The UK Foreign office doesn't even go that far, recommending only that UK citizens avoid the border areas with Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The ruling theocracy is certainly repressive and vocally anti-American, but it is not an active war zone (yet). Terrorist violence within Tehran is extremely rare. I don't think the dangers of being in Tehran are even on the same order of magnitude as being in Baghdad.

Even if the risks aren't as intense as one might initially think, what's the reward? Well one is that I think Iran is probably a fascinating place, and I've been presented with a unique opportunity to see it firsthand. I don't necessarily think it's just about "great stories", and I certainly don't care about it from a CV-boosting perspective (of which the trip will have no value). But this is a place that we talk about every day, and most of us don't know anything about it.

The second, and more important reason, is that I've wanted to make a contribution to (for lack of a better name) "The War on Terror". Not as it's framed by any government, but in the sense that I believe that their is a real conflict between ignorance and enlightenment that threatens everybody. I have huge respect for the guys (like Chris and Teresa) who really do risk their lives in war zones, and I'd like to make a contribution as well (though obviously not on the same scale). I don't have an M16, though, so what can I do? Well, how about giving 3 days of lectures on computational methods for finding disease genes to a roomful of smart Iranians? Isn't this the bottom line? That instead of going to university and studying genetics they're going to madrasas and listening to anti-American vitriol?

I realise that a couple of lectures from Westerners isn't going to change the Iranian educational system or bring down the government, but lately I've been feeling that I need to find the integrity to stand up for something. For me, part of that something is the belief that science has the potential to make the world a better place. To bring a small amount of that to a part of the world that is severely lacking in it seems to be perhaps the best contribution I can make. Maybe that's incredibly naive and I know that I'm a tiny cog in a very big machine, but life has to be about more than checking my email and going to the pub.

But after all that, I think I'll probably live up exactly to Aaron's expectations and not go. I'm a pretty risk-averse person, and this is well outside of my comfort zone. Maybe if the political climate had not just soured even further between the US and Iran I would've done it. I'm going to think about it for the rest of the weekend and write back on Monday or Tuesday.

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