Co-authored with Ali Arab, Ph.D., associate professor of statistics at Georgetown University, and Elise Auerbach, Iran country specialist, Amnesty International USA
Even those who are severely math-challenged have been mesmerized by the recent news of Iranian mathematics dynamo Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman and the first Iranian to be awarded the prestigious Fields medal. The story of her achievements, perseverance, and of surviving a tragic bus accident that killed a number of other talented young mathematicians returning from a competition is an inspiration to everyone, particularly Iranians. Iranian President Rouhani himself tweeted his personal congratulations to Professor Mirzakhani.
Though Iranians are expressing enormous pride in her extraordinary accomplishments, Maryam Mirzakhani is not living and working in Iran. She is a professor at Stanford University and one of the vast numbers of brilliant and talented Iranians who have left Iran in droves to pursue opportunities in other countries, mainly in North America and Europe. It is no secret that Iran has a "brain drain" problem; it has been recognized by top Iranian authorities including Iran's Minister of Science and Technology Reza Faraji Dana, who noted, "Every year, about 150,000 of our elite emigrate from Iran, costing our economy $150 billion."
There are a number of reasons why accomplished Iranians would prefer to pursue opportunities outside of Iran, but one likely factor is the ever-present possibility of suddenly being arrested, thrown into jail and slapped with spurious charges of crimes against national security, simply for engaging in normal professional exchanges with colleagues in the West. This is the nightmarish scenario faced by the brilliant young Iranian physicist Omid Kokabee. He had been pursuing post-doctoral studies in quantum optics at the University of Texas, Austin, when he returned to Iran to visit his family. He was arrested in January 2011 and that May, after an unfair trial in a Revolutionary Court at which reportedly no evidence was presented against him, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly communicating with a hostile government and receiving "illegitimate funds," ostensibly a reference to the normal stipend given to graduate students at the University of Texas.
Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely due to his refusal to engage in military research for the Islamic Republic of Iran and as a result of spurious charges related to his legitimate scholarly ties with academic institutions outside of Iran. Omid Kokabee was awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize from the American Physical Society for "his courage in refusing to use his physics knowledge to work on projects that he deemed harmful to humanity, in the face of extreme physical and psychological pressure."
The refusal to use his expertise for Iran's nuclear and military program is apparently one reason for the punitive treatment Omid Kokabee has suffered, but the nebulous charge of communicating with a hostile government indicate that he was yet one more victim of an ongoing narrative perpetuated by hard-line clerics and by Iran's powerful security agencies, consistent with an alleged campaign orchestrated by the U.S. government, the Israeli Mossad and British Intelligence to launch a so-called "Velvet Revolution" (Enghelab-e Makhmali) to undermine the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In order to achieve their aim, they are allegedly recruiting high-profile Iranians using academic exchanges, by attracting Iranians to attend conferences either in the U.S. or other countries, or to hold residency at universities or other institutions in the U.S.
Omid Kokabee and Maryam Mirzakhani were both members of Iran's elite Olympiad teams of talented young scientists and mathematicians, and were recognized early on as having potential for using their enormous gifts for the benefit of society. Thankfully Professor Mirzakhani is able to carry out her professional activities in freedom, whereas Omid Kokabee languishes in prison. He has even tried to pursue his scientific work behind bars, submitting papers to be presented at conferences and requesting the opportunity to continue his studies. Each of those requests has been denied by his jailers.
Omid Kokabee's situation is not merely a tragedy for the Iranian people but also for all of humanity, denied potential benefit from his important work. His research focuses on laser optics and photonics, with the potential of numerous applications in a variety of fields. He had been hoping to present a paper on his work on the removal of cancerous tissues with ultrafast lasers, an advance that could potentially spare countless cancer patients from painful and disfiguring surgeries.
In this global, knowledge-based economy, Iran desperately needs to hold on to its greatest resource -- the gifted citizens for whom it has expended considerable resources to educate, only to watch other countries benefit from their talents. None of us -- not least the people of Iran -- can afford to lose the Omid Kokabees of the world.