FRONTLINE/World [home]

Search FRONTLINE/World

FRONTLINE/World Rough Cut
image image image image

Rough Cut
Iran: The Stem Cell Fatwa
Science and religion's unlikely union


Jonathan Schienberg and Neil Katz

Neil Katz is a multimedia reporter and field producer for the CBS News show 48 Hours. Jonathan Schienberg is an associate producer with the CBS news magazine series 60 Minutes and a multimedia news producer. Both reporters are graduates of the Columbia School of Journalism.

Watch Video

Length: 12:43

While American headlines about Iran barely get beyond religious extremism and nuclear bombs, on a visit there recently, my reporting partner Neil Katz and I discovered a more unusual pairing: religious devotion and medical science. This staunchly conservative theocracy has become a hub of world-class research in embryonic stem cell science.


Iran is once again becoming a leader in the scientific world.

In 2002, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei created a "stem cell fatwa" declaring experimentation with human embryonic stem cells consistent with Shiite Islam and encouraging scientists to advance the technology to save lives.

Through embryonic stem-cell science, and other work being done at the Royan Institute in Tehran (the country's premiere science center), Iran is once again becoming a leader in the scientific world. It's a throwback to 1700 years ago, when the Persian Empire was the center of the scientific universe.

In 2005, Iranian scientists implanted human embryonic stem cells into paralyzed rats and released results that the rats were able to walk again. A year later, they cloned a sheep. And now, similar to research being done in the West, they are trying to find safe ways to transform adult cells into embryonic cells.

Despite these efforts, scientists there told us that the path to progress is not easy. A 30-year American embargo has made scientific supplies and technology scarce. Some machines, which Western scientists have been using since the 1950s, are still not available in Iran.

In 2002, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei created a "stem cell fatwa" declaring experimentation with human embryonic stem cells consistent with Shiite Islam and encouraging scientists to advance the technology to save lives.

Opportunities for Iranian scientists to collaborate with the West are also limited. When scientists are invited to share their research in America, Homeland Security often turns them down. Similarly, invitations to Iranians to study in the U.S. are often slowed or blocked by the U.S. government. When Iranian institutes have reciprocated offers, few American scientists have been brave enough to accept. Scientists at Royan told us that the National Institute of Health has advised U.S. professors not to accept invitations to attend their conferences.

While there's progress in the labs, on the streets, peoples' dress and behavior are constantly monitored. In Tehran, we watched the "Moral Police," brought back by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, harass women who were not wearing their headscarves "correctly." We were also constantly harassed ourselves trying to film on the streets. At one point, we were taken into police custody where officers grilled us and threatened to confiscate our tapes.

Many people told us, "Be very careful. You are being followed by government spies." And others warned that the fixer agency we had hired to help us get around in Iran was really just a front for the Revolutionary Guard.

Paranoid delusions? We never knew for sure.

-- Jonathan Schienberg

Comments for this page are closed.


I am an Iranian who is one of Iran's current regime opposition. Just let me tell your readers who are not Iranians and not familiar with Iran that you should have different behaviors toward Irans' People and the regime as they are two different cases .The researches which are going on are done by some researchers who are just scientistes like all other places.Besides you should consider Islam and Iran's current regime two different cases too as main Shie Islam clergy men have said that this regime is not Islamic at all.As a muslem I tell you whenever you approach logic you are approaching Islam .Just read Quran ,muslems holly book to figure it out.And about being the hub of science I should say that Persian empire was the hub of science a lot before than 1700 years ago.Just search Engineering an Empire and Persia on youtube.

Winston Smith - Dallas, TX
Iranians consider themselves ARIAN people, not ARABS. They speak an ancient language of FARSI which came from ARIAN peoples. This is maybe why the current government can and often does things that one would expect from NAZIS or Hilter. Often Holocausted acts are perceived as being consistant with their ideals. .... sad, it will wound a great people who believe in such racial follies as being a "chosen people." We are all humans, and humanity has a right to human diginity.

Hasanayn - Chicago, IL
Ok, if everything reported here is true. Then I will say that Iran needs to stay awake and exercise good diplomatic dialogue with other nations. Furthermore policing people is no way of life. Honest to God, I feel very sorry for the citizens. This is not a God like way, only a dictatorship.

This is very informational and helpful to me always growing mind thank you.

david raynor - genesee, idaho
this reads like a report from nazi germany, just change the names to something more tutonic.

Jon Vaughn - Los Angeles, Ca
What was Rome doing in 309? Sleeping? In what context has the Islamist Theocracy suddenly decided that saving human lives is a value? Are they trying to overcome the guilt of having murdered tens of thousands of innocent people these last 30 years?
This story is too trite to be interesting.

port charlotte, florida
i love this school.