In Iran, Searching for Common Ground

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

TEHRAN -- During the decades when the United States and the Soviet Union were threatening to annihilate each other with nuclear weapons, they at least had embassies in each other's capitals, cultural and economic exchanges, and a communications "hot line" so that the two leaders could talk to each other and avoid the kind of miscalculations that can lead to war.

The United States and Iran have none of these confidence-building links to maintain dialogue amid their current confrontation. Public discourse is pretty much limited to invective from both sides. But despite this political chasm, some courageous doctors and scientists on both sides have been reaching out to collaborate on important projects.

Over the past 10 days, I visited the Iranian leaders of two of the most interesting and unlikely exchanges -- one involving HIV-AIDS treatment and the other research on chemical weapons victims. These two scientific bridges give me hope that some day rational people on both sides will figure out ways to solve the larger problems that have obstructed U.S.-Iranian relations for 27 years.

The hero of the HIV-AIDS story is Dr. Arash Alaei. From his headquarters in an old tuberculosis hospital in the hills of North Tehran, he supervises a nationwide prevention and treatment program for AIDS and drug addiction that the World Health Organization in 2004 described as a "best-practice model" for the Middle East. With his guidance, the Iranians instituted a nationwide needle-exchange program; they distribute condoms free at health clinics around the country, and they have methadone treatment centers in every province. Indeed, their public health program in this area looks more enlightened than what we have in America.

Alaei started building this treatment network in the days when the Islamic government scorned AIDS and drug addiction as evils implanted by the decadent West. He began in 1998 in his native city of Kermanshah in northwest Iran, where AIDS was spreading fast among drug addicts in local prisons. He established what he called a "triangular" clinic, which eased the AIDS stigma by treating addiction and sexually transmitted diseases as well. The innovative program caught the eye of Iran's health minister, and by 2003 Alaei had taken it nationwide. Today he has triangular clinics in 67 Iranian cities and 57 prisons.

Having pioneered effective AIDS treatment in Iran, Alaei wanted to share what he was doing with the United States. He invited 13 students from American universities to come work with him. They're all Iranian Americans, drawn from Harvard, Brown, Johns Hopkins and Oberlin. Next year Alaei plans to bring 50 American students of diverse backgrounds, and he's traveling to the United States this month to speak to professors at Harvard and Johns Hopkins about organizing faculty exchanges and joint degree programs. The young Americans helped him run training sessions this summer for doctors from Iraq, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Syria.

My chemical weapons hero is Dr. Shahriar Khateri. As a boy of 14, he enlisted in the Iranian militia known as the basij and was exposed to chemical weapons attacks by Iraqi forces three times. He escaped serious injury, but after he graduated from medical school, he took a passionate interest in other Iranians who hadn't been so fortunate. Working with Mostafa Ghanei and other Iranian doctors, he supervised a systematic study of the roughly 34,000 Iranians who had been injured by mustard gas. His office here is lined with gut-wrenching pictures of Iranians who were gassed by Saddam Hussein's troops.

Here's where the Iranian-American link to weapons of mass destruction gets interesting. Khateri found a surprise ally in an American researcher named David Haines, who had been studying the effects of Iraqi chemical weapons ever since he served as an Army officer in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. By 2000 Haines was traveling to conferences in Iran and preparing joint research projects with Iranian scientists. He won a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to bring a young Iranian scientist named Ali Reza Hosseini Khalili to his lab at the University of Connecticut. (When I first reported on Haines's efforts in a June column, gremlins in the U.S. government were blocking Khalili's visa; happily, the visa problems were resolved the day the column appeared.)

This month Haines will present a paper on his joint efforts with Khateri's Iranian researchers to the U.S. Army's chemical defense research facility at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The working title: "Chemical-Agent-Exposed Iranian Populations: A Tool for Understanding Disease." The subtitle pretty much sums up the rationale for these Iranian-American exchanges: A tool for understanding . In the escalating crisis between the two countries, we are either going to do more talking or we may end up fighting.

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