US societies reverse rules on Iranians

One permanently ends its ban on Iranian authors, another installs a new one for students

By | October 4, 2005

Two American academic societies have reversed their policies toward Iranian scientists. One, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), has decided to no longer prohibit Iranian authors from publishing in its journals, while the American Concrete Institute (ACI) has decided to install a new ban barring Iranian students from taking part in an annual engineering competition they routinely enter each year.

Last month, the AIAA board of directors decided to permanently rescind the ban on publishing Iranian authors it had enacted in May. The organization had temporarily suspended the ban in June pending its September meeting. Susan Ying, a board member, told The Scientist that "most of the membership" opposed the embargo and many had complained about it since May. AIAA has more than 31,000 members worldwide and publishes seven journals, including the AIAA Journal, the Journal of Aircraft, and the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.

AIAA enacted the ban because the board feared it might be violating US embargo law, which prohibits Americans from trading with citizens of Iran, Cuba and Sudan. The ban effectively targeted only Iranians, because the AIAA has no Cuban or Sudanese members or authors, according to executive director Bob Dickman.

In September 2003, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) ruled that the little-known embargo law prohibited the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) from editing manuscripts from all embargoed countries, leaving it with no choice but to publish them unedited or reject them.

Subsequently, a few other scientific societies stopped publishing Iranians after the IEEE decision out of fear that OFAC would also charge them with a crime. A consortium of academic publishers and societies led by the Association of American Publishers pressed OFAC for over a year to drop the embargo, but to no avail. Last October, the consortium sued the agency, and last December, OFAC reversed its decision, granting a general license to all US publishers to edit and publish material from embargoed nations.

Marc Brodsky, CEO of the American Institute of Physics and a central figure in the publishers' lawsuit, told The Scientist that OFAC's reversal means AIAA never needed to ban Iranian articles. "There's nothing unclear about the OFAC regulations" on publishing, he said. IEEE's president-elect Michael Lightner, a three-year veteran of that organization's OFAC negotiations, agreed, saying that although he is not an expert on AIAA's case, he thinks "there was no need for an embargo on their part."

According to Ying, the AIAA board enacted its ban and rescinded it without ever discussing the fact that OFAC had settled the publishing issue last December. AIAA's Dickman declined to comment other than to verify the ban's revocation.

Last January, the American Concrete Institute (ACI) decided to ban Iranian students from taking part in its annual international student engineering competition after OFAC ruled that certification courses ACI had been offering to Iranian professionals were illegal, because they provided a service. Students from Cuba and Sudan were also banned from the competition, although none have entered the contest, according to William Tolley, ACI'S executive vice president.

Tolley told The Scientist that since his organization had never known it was violating OFAC's rules until the agency began investigating, it decided to temporarily exclude Iranian students from the competition while it asked OFAC whether their participation was legal. However, Tolley said he has written to OFAC four times—most recently in September-- and he still doesn't have an answer.

Unfortunately, Iranian students didn't learn they were excluded from the ACI engineering competition until this summer when they attempted to register, according to Fredun Hojabri, former president of the alumni association for Iran's Sharif University of Technology.

Hojabri told The Scientist that the ban is particularly frustrating because over the past few years, Iranians have often won one, two or three of the top three places. "I would think interactions with championship Iranians would be very helpful to Americans," AIP's Brodsky said. "If we don't want to learn from them, then so much the worse for us."

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