David Rose

We didn't share weapons research with Nazi Germany - so why have we let UK academics do so with Iran?

It must be hoped that Sunak’s inquiry looks at what needs to change to ensure that from now on, such activity stops.

June 23, 2023 15:45

It's not every day that the JC gets a shout-out at Prime Minister’s questions on the floor of the House of Commons, so if you already know, I hope you’ll forgive me for mentioning that this happened on Wednesday. David Davis, the senior Tory MP and former Brexit secretary, asked Rishi Sunak whether he would order an inquiry into our disclosure that British universities have collaborated with Iran to develop new technology that may make its attack drones and other weapons more deadly. And as we report on our front page, order an inquiry is exactly what Sunak did.

It will involve five government departments: Business and Trade, Science, Innovation and Technology, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The last is especially significant, for it has the power to bring criminal prosecutions for breaching British sanctions, imposed on Iran because its nuclear weapons programme. 

The British universities that will now come under scrutiny include Imperial College, Cambridge, Cranfield, Glasgow and Edinburgh. They may have broken sanctions law in two distinct, but related ways: by sharing work on restricted military and dual use technology, and by collaborating with members of two Iranian universities that are on the UK sanctions list, Shahid Beheshti and the Sharif University of Technology.

As is usual when preparing investigations of this type, my colleague Felix Pope and I contacted the UK-based academics whose collaborative work we exposed to ask for comment. Only one of them responded in person before our articles were published, and in the end, we didn’t mention her project, because she had worked on it at an institution overseas, before arriving in Britain. (Most of the universities did respond, and denied they had done anything wrong.)

So I was quite intrigued when, late on Wednesday, I was contacted by a seasoned professor whose name was on a paper dealing with a very sensitive field – along with co-authors from the sanctioned Shahid Beheshti university in Tehran.

I agreed not to write anything that might lead to him being identified. But what he said was nevertheless revealing. Under the terms of our agreement, I can’t tell you what the paper he co-authored was about. But it’s fair to say that it dealt with aspects of an experimental technology that, if and when it comes to fruition, would make an enormous, game-changing impact in both civilian and military spheres - and be potentially extremely lucrative. 

The prof didn’t seem to grasp that working with anyone at a sanctioned university in Iran on something of this nature might not be a great idea, even if the production of commercially valuable and militarily deployable devices was still some distance away. He also appeared not to have been aware of the fact that under the sanctions rules, it is an offence to transfer both “tangible and intangible” resources to a sanctioned entity – something that, legal experts tell me, may well include intellectual property. Let’s be charitable. He was, it seems to me, at best, staggeringly naïve. 

I’ve already pointed out in an earlier column that all UK universities have legions of officials who are supposed to scrutinise the ethics and legality of proposals for academic research. One of their roles is to ensure that researchers do not flout export controls on sensitive technologies.  Moreover, the Foreign Office also runs the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS), which is also meant to prevent the transfer of military and dual use technology. This, the government says, has recently been toughened up.

Yet somehow, at least a dozen questionable collaborations with Iran slipped through these nets, and if the inquiry ordered by Sunak is to have lasting value, it needs to examine why. 

Here are a couple of suggestions. First, rigorous though it sometimes is, ATAS doesn’t apply at all to UK citizens, only to foreign nationals pursuing studies or research at UK universities. You could be a British professor at a blue chip British college helping Iran to build advanced drone engines, and as things stand, the government might never know. 

Second, universities and their export control departments might like to think a little more carefully about where research might lead. Today’s “blue skies” research into something that sounds abstruse might be a route to creating a new deadly weapon, or a device that would give a hostile power’s forces a huge battlefield advantage.

I can think of an example where the work of a Jewish scientist did exactly that: Albert Einstein. Of course, he never worked on nuclear weapons development per se, but his famous equation E = mc2 opened up the theoretical pathway that made them possible. He also saw how perilous it would be if Nazi Germany were to exploit his ideas to build the first Bomb, and signed the letter to President Roosevelt from a group of eminent scientists just before the start of World War Two that led to the Manhattan Project, founded as an attempt to ensure that America got there first.

You could say that if not for Einstein, we wouldn’t be worrying about Iran becoming a nuclear armed state. Thankfully, none of the collaborations revealed by the JC appear to increased that particular risk. But they may have made Iran more dangerous in other ways. It must be hoped that Sunak’s inquiry looks at what needs to change to ensure that from now on, such activity stops.  

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June 23, 2023 15:45

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