INO: Behind the dream


Mahmoud Ghomi, also known as Moshaver-al-Molk Mahmoudi, was among 42 students who had been sent to Europe by the governmental scholarship in 1858 to learn the modern science and technology. This was the first group of Iranian students who were selected to learn modern science and bring it back to Iran. It was a part of the famous Iranian chancellor, Amir Kabir, initiations for reforms in Iran.

The idea was sending the bright young students to the European best universities, and upon their return, they started to teach other students in Iran. The hope was to reshape Iranian society and transform it into a modern country. Ghomi had been sent to Paris. He studied Astronomy in Polytechnique Paris and even briefly worked in Paris observatory and probably even worked with a team of German asteroid hunters (The Paris Observatory has not any record of his time there but Iranian newspapers of that time period reported it multiple time and even called the asteroid ‘Mahmoodi Star’.)

After he finished his studies, he returned to Iran and brought back a few small telescopes and an Idea.

He held a few observing events for the Naser al-Din Shah Qajar at Shams-ol-emareh in Golestan Palace of Tehran. He let the Shah observed the moon, Saturn, Jupiter and few other objects with those small telescopes. And he asked the Shah to support his idea and proposal for building a modern optical observatory in Iran; The Iranian Royal Observatory.

Shah rejected his proposal. His answer documented in the history: “we shall not spend money on the air and sky”.

Moshaver-al-Molk then was appointed as senior manager in the Iranian Telegraph services, and then he had been sent to Iraq as console and finally after the parliamentary revolution in Iran he became the PM in first Iranian national parliament. None of those appointments had anything to do with his studies. All the investment into his education was wasted, and Iran lost its chance of founding a modern science organisation. Iran once hosted tens of the most significant – none optical – observatories of the world, yet still had to wait to open her eyes into the starry nights once again.

Since then Iran has witnessed two regime changes. As Ervand Abrahamian puts it “Iran entered the twentieth century with oxen and wooden ploughs. It exited with steel mills, one of the world’s highest automobile accident rates, and, to the consternation of many, a nuclear program.[1]

Some things should have changed during more than one century. The scientific thought should have been evolved in Iran during this long time, and Iran should have got over the question about the value of investment in the scientific endeavour. But it seems that kind of thinking survived out of all of the changes.

About two decades ago Iranian scientists and astronomers decided to start an ambitious project: To build Iranian National Observatory or INO . An observatory with the main 3.4-meter telescope and equipped with a series of modern technologies including active optics. According to the first plan, it was supposed to get its first light in International Astronomy Year (2009). It didn’t happen. Ten years ago the project got the government funding, and it became the most expensive greatest scientific project in Iran.

Now the target is 2021, and many people are suspicious about this timeline. The first plan included the development of the telescope building technology in Iran. The science goals were ambitious and hopeful.

“Iran entered the twentieth century with oxen and wooden ploughs. It exited with steel mills, one of the world’s highest automobile accident rates, and, to the consternation of many, a nuclear program.”  E.Abrahamian

Now the INO is under construction. Long behind the original timeline – which means loss of many science goals and international collaborations – and probably far different from the original idea.

The INO is the flagship for Iranian scientific projects in the modern day. Studying this case is a pathway to understand the scientific management in Iran and also gives us a glimpse to other announced scientific plans in Iran.

Reza Mansouri

One issue in this study is lack of the documents. Most of the decision-making progress is happening behind closed doors, and we don’t know how the scientific community of Iran participated in it.

Recently Dr Reza Mansouri, one of the founders of this project and former manager of the INO published the first volume of his memoir about this project. You can read it here (in Farsi). It opens a fantastic window to the behind the sense of this project. No matter you agree with Dr Mansouri’s positions on issues or not, the nature of the discussions and problems and challenges in this project show that despite all the changes, Iran still is suffering from the same frame of thinking of last century.

For all of us who are interested in how the system in the scientific community works, this project and this memoir could be valuable.

There is another side note about this project:

Despite the importance of the INO, the coverage of this project is very limited in Iranian media. Why don’t Iranian science journalists cover this issue more thoroughly and in depth? Do they find this project not interesting? Or the audiences don’t care? Or the management don’t provide the data and information?

No matter what the answer is, it could give us a better understanding of the state of science communications in Iran.


Persian Version


   [1] Abrahamian, Ervand. A history of modern Iran. Cambridge university press, 2018.

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