Iran Watch: Israel and Iran agree: Open SESAME

Today’s news paints a picture of an Iran increasingly hemmed in by sanctions. SWIFT, a Belgium-based organization that facilitates banking transactions, announced that it will block Iranian banks targeted by EU sanctions, effectively cutting Iran off from the global financial system. Reuters reports that Iran has been frantically stockpiling wheat to blunt the impact of ...

Johannes Simon/Getty Images
Johannes Simon/Getty Images
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Today's news paints a picture of an Iran increasingly hemmed in by sanctions. SWIFT, a Belgium-based organization that facilitates banking transactions, announced that it will block Iranian banks targeted by EU sanctions, effectively cutting Iran off from the global financial system. Reuters reports that Iran has been frantically stockpiling wheat to blunt the impact of sanctions, while the Obama administration is threatening to impose sanctions on India if it keeps buying Iranian oil. These developments have been accompanied by spurts of tough talk from Tehran; Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, for instance, declared that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites would spell "the end of the Jewish state."

And yet, out of the headlines of isolation, comes a surprising glimmer of cooperation: Israel and Iran are actually collaborating on something. Haaretz reports:   

In an extraordinary act of regional cooperation, Israel, Iran, Jordan, and Turkey are to jointly provide funds for a particle accelerator as part of their commitment to a UNESCO-sponsored scientific project, it was announced on Wednesday.

Today’s news paints a picture of an Iran increasingly hemmed in by sanctions. SWIFT, a Belgium-based organization that facilitates banking transactions, announced that it will block Iranian banks targeted by EU sanctions, effectively cutting Iran off from the global financial system. Reuters reports that Iran has been frantically stockpiling wheat to blunt the impact of sanctions, while the Obama administration is threatening to impose sanctions on India if it keeps buying Iranian oil. These developments have been accompanied by spurts of tough talk from Tehran; Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, for instance, declared that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would spell “the end of the Jewish state.”

And yet, out of the headlines of isolation, comes a surprising glimmer of cooperation: Israel and Iran are actually collaborating on something. Haaretz reports:   

In an extraordinary act of regional cooperation, Israel, Iran, Jordan, and Turkey are to jointly provide funds for a particle accelerator as part of their commitment to a UNESCO-sponsored scientific project, it was announced on Wednesday.

Each of the four countries has pledged $5 million toward the SESAME facility, which is being built near Amman. SESAME stands for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East. According to the UNESCO website, the project aims to “foster scientific and technological excellence in the Middle East and neighboring countries (and prevent or reverse brain drain) by enabling world-class research,” and to “build scientific and cultural bridges between neighboring countries.”

If the $100 million SESAME center, which is slated to go online in 2015, succeeds, the Middle East will get its first synchrotron.

 

Iran meter: Could science be both central to the nuclear dispute and key to resolving it peacefully? Sadly, the SESAME project has been as much a source of tension as teamwork. Last year, the Financial Times noted that two Iranian scientists who had worked at the center — Massoud Ali Mohammadi and Majid Shahriari  — had died under mysterious circumstances in the course of a year.

Some speculate that their involvement in SESAME “exposed the scientists to suspicion that they were complicit in sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program,” the FT explained. “In Tehran’s political and diplomatic circles, the killing of Ali Mohammadi was seen as a possible act of revenge by the regime” (at the time of Ali Mohammadi’s death, an Iranian researcher who was also involved in the project maintained that there were no direct meetings between his delegation and the Israelis). Iranian news outlets and officials blamed both deaths on Israel and the West.

Beyond particle physics, Israeli-Iranian contacts are very limited, but they’re not nonexistent. Last May, Ynet reported that dozens of Israeli companies trade with Iran secretly through third parties in countries such as Dubai, Jordan, and Turkey. 

Israeli exports to Iran focus on agricultural production means: Organic fertilizers, pierced irrigation pipes, hormones boosting milk productions, and seeds.

The Iranians sell the Israelis pistachio, cashew nuts, and mainly marble — one of Iran’s biggest industries.

The news today about cooperation on SESAME is heartening, of course. But we have a long way to go between particles and peace.

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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