Reaching Out to Iran

By David Ignatius
Friday, June 2, 2006

America's opening to China had its ping-pong diplomacy. Detente with the Soviet Union featured the Bolshoi Ballet. Perhaps in the new diplomatic dance between the United States and Iran, a similar people-to-people role will be played by an immunologist named David Haines and his project to study Iranian victims of Iraqi chemical weapons.

Haines first told me his unlikely story several months ago, as he was seeking U.S. government approval for his effort to bring an Iranian scientist to join him in his work at the University of Connecticut. The urgency of his project became obvious after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Wednesday that the United States is willing to join direct talks with Iran for the first time in nearly three decades. Perhaps Haines's project can be a model for broader educational and scientific contacts if a U.S.-Iran dialogue can begin.

Haines's tale features many of the strands that are knotted together in the current Middle East crisis: weapons of mass destruction; the aftershocks of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime; the legacy of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; the need to prepare for future WMD attacks by terrorist groups. You may doubt that all those themes could converge in the work of one scientist, but read on.

At the heart of Haines's project is a little-appreciated fact about Iran. Though the world's attention is now focused on Tehran's effort to acquire nuclear weapons, few realize that during the 1980s the country was the victim of massive Iraqi chemical weapons attacks. An Iranian medical census has identified 34,000 people who were exposed to mustard gas -- the largest group of such victims since World War I.

Haines began studying the effect of chemical weapons on human beings in 1991 in Kuwait. He had served as a chemical officer supporting the 82nd Airborne Division during the Persian Gulf War. After the war ended, he left the Army Reserve but stayed on in Kuwait until 1993, studying Kuwaitis who had been exposed to chemical weapon residues after Iraqi stockpiles were demolished.

While working at Kuwait University, Haines quickly realized that it would be useful to study the experience of the tens of thousands of Iranians who had been exposed to chemical weapons during the Iraq-Iran War. He was turned down flat when he contacted the Iranian Embassy in Kuwait in 1991, but he persisted. He made contacts with Iranian researchers in the mid-1990s, and by 2000 he was invited to present papers at two scientific conferences in Iran. He returned for conferences in 2002 and 2004 and began working with Iranian scientists who were studying the mustard gas victims. This U.S.-Iranian collaboration has so far produced three academic papers, with a fourth to appear soon in the journal Military Medicine.

In their study of WMD victims, Haines and his Iranian colleagues found some frightening effects. Of the 34,000 Iranians exposed to mustard gas, 42.5 percent had lesions on the lungs, 39.3 percent had eye damage and 25.5 percent had skin lesions. Lung cancer is widespread among the victims, though there are no solid numbers yet. The next step for the U.S.-Iranian researchers is to investigate precisely how mustard gas changes the cell biology of the lung -- and in that way, perhaps, understand how to counteract its effects.

Haines won a $300,000 grant last year from the National Institutes of Health to study lung tissue samples from Iranian mustard gas victims -- in the hope of unlocking some of these basic biological riddles. The U.S. Army's chemical defense research institute at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland has encouraged Haines's work and hopes to examine the Iranian tissue samples to help with U.S. chemical defense. Oncologists at New York Medical College, meanwhile, even think the research may help them understand lung cancer suffered by those who inhaled debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11.

This wouldn't be an American story if bureaucratic confusion didn't intrude at some point. An Iranian scientist, Ali Reza Hosseini Khalili, was scheduled to join Haines as a research assistant at the University of Connecticut in May. His visa was tentatively approved, then delayed. Meanwhile, Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control is refusing to release Iran-related spending under Haines's $300,000 grant, even though the research is backed by the NIH and has encouragement from the Defense Department.

Haines says Iranian scientists have been "overwhelmingly positive" in their response to the joint effort. He explains: "The level of suffering the country experienced as a result of chemical weapons is beyond the imagining of most Americans. Every Iranian community has someone who was exposed."

This is one WMD issue where Iranians and Americans are on the same side. Maybe that's a start.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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