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Open Sesame: Israel and Its Foes Work Together on Science Project

Here’s some good news from the Middle East: Iran and Israel, bitter enemies, need no “Open Sesame” magic to be able to cooperate on an advanced scientific project. In Alaan, a town just north of Amman — and at a comfortable remove from the spotlight thrown by political conflicts — representatives of the two countries are involved in developing SESAME, an acronym for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East.

It’s a rare and possibly unique example of scientific cooperation between Israel, Iran and other countries with which Israel has no ties, such as Pakistan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Other members are Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. Libya is expected to join soon as an observer.

“The political importance of the project cannot be underestimated,” professor Khaled Toukan, Jordan’s minister of education and the project’s acting director, told JTA.

“Scientists in the region work together in a spirit of cooperation for the sake of developing the Middle East,” Toukan said. He was in Petra for the Conference of Nobel Laureates, which convened in that ancient Nabatean town last week.

SESAME, the Middle East’s first major international research center, is a synchrotron accelerator. It uses magnets to create a circular path for electrons traveling at nearly the speed of light, producing a beam of bright ultraviolet and X-ray light, about the diameter of a human hair, that is directed down beam lines to end stations.

“These beam lines are so much stronger than the known X-rays that they open up new options for scientific research,” professor Moshe Deutsch, chairman of Israel’s national council for synchrotron radiation and one of two Israeli participants in SESAME, told JTA.

SESAME is exepcted to contribute to a wide range of scientific research, including structural molecular biology, molecular environmental science, X-ray imaging, archeological microanalysis, materials characterization and clinical medical applications.

Synchrotron radiation is widely used in materials science and biomedical applications, including lithography for computer chips, absorption and scattering measurements and high-pressure applications to create artificial diamonds and other substances.

An international synchrotron-light source in the Middle East was first proposed in 1997, when peace seemed to be on the way. European and Middle Eastern scientists worked together, and with the contribution of an old German synchrotron, SESAME got underway.

The annual budget is anticipated to be between $4 million and $8 million.

The model for SESAME was the CERN Laboratory, near Geneva. It was founded as a multinational consortium after World War II in an effort to bring former enemy countries in Europe closer, and now functions under the auspices of UNESCO.

“It succeeded beyond any expectation, and is now the world’s leading high-energy physics laboratory,” Deutsch said.

One Israeli newspaper recently came out with a headline that Israeli scientists were helping with Iran’s and Egypt’s nuclear programs.

“This is absolutely false,” Deutsch said. “The synchrotron can have no military use.”

But it can have immense political implications. All scientists — including the Iranians — were empowered by their governments; in fact, they are their governments’ official representatives on the council, which meets in the region every few months. In other words, it’s not merely an occasional collaboration between scientists, but rather official cooperation between the countries concerned, regardless of political animosities.

How is that possible?

“All participants deal only with common scientific ground and nothing else,” Deutsch said.

Israel’s other representative to the council, Eliezer Rabinovici of Hebrew University, is a theoretical physicist in a field that doesn’t overlap with synchrotrons, so his own research won’t derive any direct benefit from SESAME. Nevertheless, Rabinovici is an enthusiastic partner.

“I have been with SESAME because I believe we should contribute to our environment to advance peace and create a dialogue designed to break stereotypes,” he said.

Rabinovici said that as a physicist he believed in the “parallel universe: theory, which posits a hypothetical universe that exists separately from our own. Some theories of physics postulate the existence of many parallel

universes, possibly an infinite number.

” Meeting the other scientists was a way of satisfying curiosity about the ‘parallel universe,’ ” he said. But, he noted, “we leave the political discussions for coffee breaks.”

Why did Iran chose to participate in the project along with Israel?

“Iran used to be considered a villain in the world scientific community,” Deutsch said. “For Iran, this is a way of getting out of isolation, but the scientific benefits of the project per se are a good enough reason.”

Deutsch’s comments were affirmed by his Iranian colleague, Reza Mansouri, vice minister for research at Iran’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology.

Contacted via e-mail, Mansouri told JTA that “international and regional scientific collaboration is one of the recommendations of science policy in Iran. It is then too natural to collaborate in this project.”

Asked if Iran’s participation together with Israel had any political significance, Mansouri replied with a brief but decisive “No!”

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