David Rose

Universities, do explain how your drone research with Iran is morally acceptable

Senior MPs and peers expressed deep concern over our groundbreaking investigation


TOPSHOT - This photograph shows an object of a critical power infrastructure as it burns after a drone attack to Kyiv, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. - Drones attacked the Ukrainian capital early on December 19, 2022 morning, the Kyiv city military administration said, urging people to heed air alerts. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

June 09, 2023 13:10

Leading this week’s JC is an investigation by myself and my colleague Felix Pope into projects that involve UK-based and Iranian academics working together on technology that has obvious military uses, such as next-generation engines for drones, military jet control systems, alloys used for armour and highly sophisticated, eavesdropper-proof communications systems.

The British universities we name include Cambridge, Glasgow, Cranfield and Liverpool, and some of the partnerships we reveal have been with Iranian universities that have been on the UK sanctions list for more than a decade because of their role in Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.

I’m married to an academic, so I know from close quarters just how closely research proposals are scrutinised by university authorities, from both legal and ethical perspective. Perhaps further official investigation will conclude that there’s nothing wrong in collaborating with Iranians on technology that could, for example, make the Iranian attack drones now being used to deadly effect against Ukraine by Putin’s Russia even more dangerous.

Yet in this case – where the UK partner was Imperial College – the research was actually supported by the Iranian science ministry and Iran’s Islamic Bank, and I struggle to understand quite how such a project could have been granted approval.

But we live in morally ambiguous times, as the ongoing saga of the tour by the former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters illustrates.

At his London O2 arena gig earlier this week, he took issue with Christian Wakeford, the Bury South Labour MP who had called out his grotesque views, roaring: “Do your research, cripple!”

Wakeford had accused Waters of floating a giant pig emblazoned with a Star of David above his audiences at other recent performances.

It turns out that this time, the pig is Star of David-free, although it has been there in the past.

But Wakeford’s slip allowed Waters to claim that his critics were “making up stuff because you’ve been told to by your masters from the Foreign Office in Tel Aviv”.

Meanwhile he compared the murder of Anne Frank in the Holocaust to the death of the Aljazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while she was covering violent clashes in Jenin, allegedly by what Waters calls a “tyrannical and racist regime”.

It is hugely welcome that Waters has been unequivocally condemned by both the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and the Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove.

“Many people will think of Roger Waters as famous for being a member of one of the most important bands in history,” Starmer said in a letter to the Board of Deputies, “but he is now more synonymous with spreading deeply troubling antisemitism… Views like this should not be given a platform.”

In a separate letter, Gove said that while the government believed in free speech, there was also a “societal expectation placed on people with a significant public profile to behave responsibly and not abuse their platform.

This is an expectation of which Roger Waters is reportedly falling short.”

However, despite these forthright comments, I find this story profoundly troubling. It’s bad enough that Waters has attacked Israel and its friends in such extreme terms, and in so doing made use of ancient antisemitic tropes.

But when I read the rave reviews of his concerts in organs such as the Times and Daily Telegraph, I could hardly believe my eyes.

To the Telegraph, he had put on an “absolutely storming show”, and was merely “an extremist peacenik agitator who tours the world staging huge rock shows espousing views opposing authoritarianism, oppression, fascism, bigotry and injustice in all its forms”.

As for The Times, it called his gig “majestic”. Yet as the media watchdog Honest Reporting revealed, the paper’s editors changed the review and its headline after they had first gone online, so that its apparent defence of Waters’s politics became less strident.

The original headline was: “Ignore the online hate, this was majestic” – implying that it was Waters’s critics, not Waters himself, who were guilty of disseminating hatred.  This was changed to read: “If you can ignore the rants, this was majestic.” Cuts to the text were also made, to similar effect.

Yet it’s not the reviews that make me shudder most. The really horrifying thing is that thousands of apparently normal people will attend Waters’s concerts and cheer him to the rafters when he makes his antisemitic comments, and seem to ignore the fact that he calls an MP critic a “cripple”.

The sheer ugliness of such language appears not to worry them, for in their eyes, the “peacenik” Waters is on the right side of history.

Is turning a blind eye to military drone and aerospace research in collaboration with Iranians part of the same moral continuum? Regrettably, I think it is.

June 09, 2023 13:10

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