David Rose

We’re right to stop giving our secrets to Iran – and it might avert WW3

MI5 director-general Ken McCallum has warned university chiefs they must stop sensitive joint research with hostile states


An Iranian long-range Ghadr missile displaying "Down with Israel" in Hebrew is pictured at a defence exhibition in city of Isfahan, central Iran, on February 8, 2023. (Photo by MORTEZA SALEHI / TASNIM NEWS / AFP) (Photo by MORTEZA SALEHI/TASNIM NEWS/AFP via Getty Images)

April 26, 2024 17:52

We can only hope that the suggestion made in January by Defence Secretary Grant Shapps, that we are now living in the period before the next world war, as opposed to the era since the last one, turns out to be too pessimistic. I haven’t known a time when the international climate seemed so threatening, or the links between hostile states – principally Russia, China, Iran and North Korea – so strong. But it is clear that our chances of averting a global conflict or, heaven forbid, surviving one it if it should break out, would be a lot stronger if we stopped giving our enemies access to valuable military secrets.

There isn’t much doubt that until now, we have done just that. A notorious example is China’s fearsome naval railgun, which uses electromagnetic pulses to fire up to 120 artillery rounds per minute with a muzzle velocity six times the speed of sound. Western intelligence and military technology experts believe its development was made possible by the theft of research pioneered in Britain and America. The same is true of recent Chinese advances in quantum sensors and computing, which has the potential to grant our adversaries incalculable advantages.

And then there are the numerous cases revealed last year by this newspaper of research collaborations on new military technologies between UK-based and Iranian academics, most of them working at universities covered by British sanctions because of their involvement in Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. Blue chip British universities were involved, including Cambridge, Cranfield, Glasgow and Imperial College, London, and the new and improved lethal technologies concerned included improvements to military attack drones and their guidance systems, as sold in large numbers by Iran to Russia and deployed to deadly effect in Ukraine – and, thankfully, with rather less impact against Israel earlier this month.

The Prime Minister announced an inquiry into the JC’s revelations in the House of Commons last June. It has involved five government departments, led by officials at Business and Trade, and for some time its results appeared to be uncertain. However, I was recently told that files on Iranian collaborations with eleven UK universities have now been sent to the Office of Sanctions Implementation at the Treasury and His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which have powers to initiate legal proceedings for breaching sanctions. It is supposedly illegal to share any kind of military or “dual use” technology with Iran.

Meanwhile, Thursday brought further signs of progress. According to The Times, a secret review by MI5 and MI6 of universities’ vulnerability to thefts of technology by hostile foreign states has concluded that several have been “risking UK national security”. Henceforth, academics and researchers working in sensitive areas will have to be vetted, while universities will also have to “consult with the security services when entering into funding partnerships and collaborations with foreign institutions”.

These new measures were announced after a meeting on Thursday between MI5’s director-general Ken McCallum and 24 vice-chancellors, including those of Oxford and Cambridge. He told them that our enemies were deploying both “overt and covert mechanisms” to “acquire intellectual property and steal advantage”. There is already a team that advises universities on research collaborations, acting as a bridge between them and the security services, and this is to be expanded.

It could be said that all this is shutting the stable door after the horses being groomed in the UK’s academic institutions had bolted, but plenty more remain inside, and it is hugely to be welcomed that the government has clearly woken up to the scale of the threat.

It isn’t, I think, a coincidence that these announcements follow Rishi Sunak’s pledge to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP. The ancient saying, “si vis pacem, para bellum” (if you want peace, prepare for war) holds true for the epoch of drones and precision-guided missiles just as much as it did when wars were fought by Roman legions, and if the Cold War proved anything, it was that in general, deterrence works.

But the ancient world also contains numerous examples of states gaining colossal advantages through new military technologies. I hope we really are going to preserve our own from now on – and so avoid World War Three.

April 26, 2024 17:52

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