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IEEE's Iran Section Gets Busy Once Again

BY KATHY KOWALENKO (Source: IEEE, February 2005)

A new year brings the promise of a new beginning. That certainly is true this year for the IEEE Iran Section, which is working to rebuild its membership after the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) ruled in May 2005 that the IEEE can recognize the section as one of its official units. That means the section can once again organize activities for its members and students.

It hasn't taken long for the section to jumpstart its activities. It has been working hard to boost its membership by running meeting notices in local papers and organizing technical forums that focus on the country's hot areas of technology like telecommunications and power. Last September, for example, it helped organize an international conference in Shiraz, Iran, on telecommunications.

To help the IEEE re-establish its relationship with its Iranian members, IEEE President Michael Lightner, then President-Elect, attended the conference. While there he visited the research facilities of Sharif University of Technology, Shiraz University, and the University of Tehran, and met with some faculty members at the universities, many of whom were former IEEE members. Lightner also updated members on lingering OFAC issues and encouraged them to rejuvenate their programs during the first meeting the section held since the May decision.

"Everybody I met wants things back to the way they were," Lightner says of his visit to Iran. "They were happy that I came, that they are being recognized as a section again and that their members are able to participate in activities, and receive IEEE awards. As you might expect, they were perfectly clear about the fact that the restrictions should not have happened and concerned about why they did, but they were happy with the progress we made."

Jawad Salehi, chair of the section and a professor of electrical engineering at Sharif University, in Tehran, says it was extremely important for members and others to see the sincerity of the IEEE's top leader. "It really was touching and had a tremendously positive effect on us," he says. "He was extremely effective in regaining the confidence of former IEEE Iranian members. He gave us the moral support we needed to get active again."


MUCH DISCUSSION It took four years of discussions between the IEEE and OFAC to resolve key issues related to the U.S. embargo against Iran. In addition to addressing the section's legal status, OFAC initially indicated that services such as the IEEE's editing of manuscripts from Iranian authors and potential collaborations between Iranian and U.S. authors might not be permitted under existing rules.  It clearly indicated that transferring funds was prohibited, restricting awards and other activities in Iran. The IEEE was also informed of other restrictions or potentially disallowed activities.

Until the IEEE could work out these and other issues, it announced in January 2002 that it was necessary to restrict benefits to Iranian members. Members would continue to receive only their print subscriptions. Not surprisingly, the section's membership eroded. One of the most active sections in Region 8-which covers Europe, the Middle East and Africa-the Iran Section had 1693 dues-paying members at the end of 2001. By the end of 2005, membership had dropped to 423 members.

"The decision by the IEEE stopped all regular activities of the section but worse was the impact it had on researchers and on the university community," Salehi says. "They look to the IEEE as a means of getting their work known among the world's research community. They thought they were working with a scientific and research community that was non-political, so the decision to stop services had an emotionally negative impact more than anything else."

U.S. government rulings in 2003 and 2004 in response to the IEEE's arguments made the Institute's publishing activities and processes exempt from the embargo rules. In May 2005, the IEEE and the section got the additional good news that because the section was formed in 1970, before the embargo was put into effect, OFAC ruled it could be recognized as an official geographic unit.

A few limitations still hold, however. The Iran Section can hold conferences in the country but IEEE societies cannot organize, sponsor, or co-sponsor conferences there. Also, the IEEE cannot establish student branches or technical chapters, although the section can organize local activities at universities. Students who want to join the IEEE can join as members of the section and attend section meetings.

But the section isn't letting these stipulations slow it down. It's busy working to get students involved again, especially at Sharif University, Iran's top technology school, which had nearly 1000 student members in 2001. And the section is holding elections for new officers.

 "We are on the right path," Salehi says. "If not Number 1, we plan to be among the largest sections in Region 8."


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