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SLAC-bound Iranians hindered: Energy Department extensively screens all Iranian applicants

By Devin Banerjee, Stanford Daily

The following is the second of two reports on Iranian students and scientists at Stanford. Part one (Iranians at Stanford face hurdles: Students confront Visa delays, visits from FBI) ran in Tuesday's issue of The Daily. (reprinted with permission)

Though many Iranian students and researchers hoping to study in the U.S. face hurdles in their attempts to garner U.S. visas, the obstacles do not end once they step foot in the States.

For those looking to conduct research at one of the premier particle physics facilities in the world - the  Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, or SLAC - additional government screenings are guaranteed. In these cases, the extensive background checks are issued by the  U.S. Department of Energy, which owns SLAC.

Shahram Rahatlou

Iranian-born Shahram Rahatlou conducted research at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) for six years before he was prohibited from entering the facility in 2003 by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Both Applied Physics Professor Emeritus Herman Winick, who serves as assistant director of the  Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory Division at SLAC, and Physics Department Chair Patricia Burchat confirmed Rahatlou's basic story to The Daily. Rahatlou, now a professor in Italy, was unavailable for comment.

At the time of his expulsion, Rahatlou was called one of the top particle physics students in the U.S. According to Burchat, Rahatlou's Ph.D. thesis on research that was done using SLAC's  BaBar particle detector won him the 2004 Mitsuyoshi Tanaka Dissertation Award - an annual prize for an exceptional thesis in experimental particle physics.

"I was very aware of Shahram's work because he was one of our really excellent graduate students," Burchat said. "I was really pleased when he won that award."

Because he was barred from all DOE facilities, Rahatlou was not allowed to represent SLAC at a BaBar collaboration in Illinois'  Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab.

"He couldn't get on site to give the talk," Burchat said. "He ended up phoning in with a phone into the conference room so that he could be off-site and give the talk."

"It had a huge impact," Burchat added, noting that Rahatlou eventually moved to Rome because of the obstacles to working in the U.S. At 34, Rahatlou currently serves as an assistant professor of physics at the  Sapienza University of Rome.

According to a 2004 article in Nature Journal, DOE security officials offered no explanation for Rahatlou's expulsion and said the decision would not be appealed.

DOE spokesman Jeff Sherwood declined to comment on Rahatlou's case.

SLAC and the DOE

On work done at SLAC, Winick emphasized students and scientists at the facility must publish all work and research.

"There is no secrecy here," he said. "There are no guns, no guards, no dogs anywhere here. No classified work can be done at SLAC, according to the contract with the government."

But while SLAC is open to scientists of all backgrounds, the DOE puts restrictions on who can and cannot work at the facility.

"SLAC itself is extremely open to anybody," Winick said. "All they care about is if you're a good scientist. The problem is the DOE and the federal government put restrictions on what we can do."

Sherwood told The Daily in an email that, in general, the government does not have a say in who Stanford hires at SLAC, "as long as those hiring practices are consistent with state and federal laws and protocols."

"As a DOE-funded, unclassified facility, SLAC is required to report the visits and/or assignments of individuals from countries identified by the U.S. State Department as sensitive or terrorist-sponsoring," he wrote, referencing Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

If an individual from a T-5 country, or a terrorist-sponsoring country, wants to visit or work at SLAC or any DOE site, a background check and DOE approval are required. Usually that process takes four to six months, Sherwood said, acknowledging that "based on backlog or the complexity of the background check, this process may take longer."

Mahdiyar Noorbala, a second-year doctoral student in physics, applied for a research position at SLAC in October 2006, and said his application was approved seven months later.

"Science Is International"

With regard to graduate admission, Burchat noted that the University tries to overlook nationality in its evaluations.

"We promote bringing people here based on their talents, not their nationalities," she said. "We try to base our selection on the applicant and not the ease with which they are going to get a visa."

 American Physical Society President Arthur Bienenstock told The Daily that the U.S. government is wary of Iranian students due to concerns that Iran is developing nuclear weapons for military use. The  International Atomic Energy Agency said Monday in a report that Iran's nuclear research remains "a matter of serious concern" and that the country still owes the agency "substantial explanations," according to  The New York Times.

"Our administration [in Washington] fears that Iran is on a path to construct nuclear weapons," Bienenstock said, "and is appropriately fearful of it."

"So it's being very careful about the Iranian students that it admits to the United States and those that it allows access to the national laboratories in general," he added.

Bienenstock previously served as President  Bill Clinton's associate director of the White House  Office of Science and Technology Policy, assistant director of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory at SLAC and special assistant to University President  John Hennessy on SLAC. He emphasized Hennessy is "very involved" in matters concerning science and security.

Winick, whose efforts have resulted in the construction of a new synchrotron radiation research facility in the Middle East, acknowledged national security concerns but also underscored the importance of scientific collaboration to international peace.

"Science is international," he said. "There is no such thing as national science, just like there is no national multiplication table. If you restrict your science to only national activities, it will fall so far so far behind so quickly that it will become irrelevant."

Winick noted that council meetings for the new facility in Jordan - called SESAME - feature representatives from countries that do not recognize each other, but whose council members come together over scientific discussion.

"Israel sits next to Iran, and they become friends," Winick said. "It's almost bizarre. The science promotes understanding and ultimately, peace."

- Ryan Mac contributed to this report.

... Payvand News - 05/29/08 ... --

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