Adventures in Ethics and Science

You know what makes an already scary world a lot scarier? When a government decides it’s a crime for disease researchers to do their job.

From Declan Butler:

Iran has summarily tried two of the nation’s HIV researchers with communicating with an “enemy government,” in a half-day trial that started and ended on 31 December in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court. There will be no further court hearings, and a verdict is expected within days.

The brothers, Arash and Kamiar Alaei, who have achieved international acclaim for their progressive HIV-prevention programme, have been held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison since their arrest last June (see Nature story, subscription required). Kamiar, the younger of the brothers, holds a master’s degree from the Harvard School of Public Health and was to have resumed doctoral studies at the University of Albany’s School of Public Health in New York. Arash, former head of international education and research cooperation at the Iranian National Research Institute of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, runs a clinic in Tehran. The brothers are not thought to have been politically active. …

In August, the prosecutor publicly accused the men of fomenting a velvet revolution, arguing that they had collaborated with other scientists around the world, including some in the United States, attended international AIDS conferences, and met frequently with AIDS NGOs. “Those are not crimes, that’s good medicine,” says [Physicians for Human Rights spokesman Jonathan] Hutson, adding that it has casts a chilling effect on academic collaboration between Iran and the rest of the world. In December, the US National Academies suspended visits to Iran after the temporary detention of one of its officials in Tehran.

It’s not clear from all this whether the “crime” for which the Alaei brothers are being held is communicating scientific information with other researchers (which is part of how scientists together solve scientific puzzles like the causes and cures of diseases), or whether it is bothering to focus on HIV and its treatment in the first place.

Of course, viruses don’t care which hosts have been talking to members of “enemy regimes” or friendly ones. Viruses don’t care who is a Shiite, a Sunni, or an infidel. Viruses are just looking for a suitable host so they can get to the business of replicating.

Which means if you cast fighting a virus as a political act — and one to which you’re opposed — you put your population in a vulnerable position.

I suspect there are some voices for rationality in the Iranian government, folks who realize that Iranian researchers who are a real part of an international scientific community are a valuable asset, and who understand that effective treatment of HIV in a fairly young population is essential for Iran’s future. But for these voices of rationality to win the day, we need to make it clear that the world is watching the case of the Alaei brothers.

Revere provides details on how to take action:

You can take effective action by calling the Iranian Mission at the United Nations. Here’s the telephone number: 1-212-687-2020. PHR says they are being inundated with calls. Make yours one of them. If you call, here is what to do when you get through and what else you can do:

Urge Iran to release the Alaeis immediately. See the petition at for talking points. Feel free to add any details about how you know them, and to emphasize their great work on HIV/AIDS.

Sign the new petition on their behalf, urging Iran to stop this sham court proceeding and release the Alaeis. As soon as you sign on, an email with your message will be sent directly to the Iranian Mission to the UN, and will be added to a list of concerned citizens. We want to inundate the mission with calls for their release. Help us reach 500 signatures by the end of today!

Talking points for Call:

  • Introduce yourself and where you are calling from ex “My name is Paul and I am a doctor/medical student/health professional in Boston/Paris/Kampala etc.
  • Tell them why you are calling ex. “Treating AIDS is not a crime. Drs Alaei should be immediately released to continue their lifesaving work on HIV/AIDS for the people of Iran
  • Add any details about how you know Kamiar or Arash ex “I was a student with Kamiar at Harvard School of Public Health”
  • After you make the call, let us know by emailing skalloch [at] phrusa [dot] org

More than 3100 doctors, nurses and public health workers from more than 85 countries have signed an online petition. You can, too. It only takes a minute or so. The entire worldwide scientific community is now weighing in. You can, too.

I’m also going to suggest dead-tree letters and FAXes to the Iranian Mission to the UN. The fact that they require slightly more effort than an email or a signature on an online petition may convey that you’re serious about what you’re saying.

The snail-mail address:

Iranian Mission to the UN
622 Third Ave.
New York, NY 10017

Fax: (212) 867-7086


My hunch is that the most effective communications will be clear and firm but also respectful.

More on the matter at Physicians for Human Rights and Iran, Free Doctors Arash & Kamiar.