Scientists at British universities helped the Iranian regime develop technology that can be used in its drone programme and fighter jets, a JC investigation has revealed.
Senior MPs and peers expressed deep concern over the findings, with a government spokesperson saying Britain would “not accept collaborations which compromise our national security”.
At least 11 British universities, including Cambridge and Imperial College London, are involved, with staff producing at least 16 studies with potential Iranian military applications.
Critical infrastructure in Kyiv burns after a drone attack (Photo: Getty Images)
The UK bans the export of military and “dual-use” technology to Iran and recently imposed fresh sanctions against Iranian individuals and organisations supplying Russia with kamikaze drones being used in Ukraine.
Iran’s drone and missile arsenal is controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The government is under increasing pressure to proscribe it as a terrorist organisation.
Yet the JC can reveal that in one project researchers in Britain worked to improve drone engines, boosting their altitude, speed and range. It was funded by Tehran.
Another British university worked with Iranian counterparts to test sophisticated new control systems for jet engines, aimed at increasing their “manoeuvrability and response time” in “military applications”.
Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards (Photo: Getty Images)
Other UK-based scientists have worked with Iran to research the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as mobile base stations to extend the range of communications systems, on special alloys for military aircraft and coatings to upgrade armour plating.
MPs have demanded to know how the research was carried out under the nose of the government’s supposedly tough sanctions regime.
Lord Polak, President of Conservative Friends of Israel, said: “It’s clear that the IRGC controls Iran’s drone programmes, and that these weapons are being used by the Russians in Putin’s war on Ukraine.
"That it has a presence in British universities is yet more evidence — not that any should be needed — that we should have banned the IRGC a long time ago.”
Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy said the JC investigation was “deeply troubling” and called on the government to urgently investigate whether sanctions had been breached.
Former Tory cabinet minister David Davis MP questioned whether the government was enforcing compliance with sanctions. He said: “There is little point in having a sanctions regime unless the relevant government departments monitor and enforce it properly.
“It should not be possible for researchers at British universities to effectively assist the Iranian state in enhancing its weapons systems which may be deployed against our allies, or even our own soldiers.”
Alicia Kearns MP, chair of the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, added: "This is a horrifying collaboration, one that I fear risks breaching sanctions in place around sensitive and dual-use technologies. I shall be writing to the Education Secretary and Science and Technology Secretary to raise the JC's report with them.
"It is quite possible these collaborations are assisting in the gender apartheid within Iran, and its hostile interference and violence across the Middle East or even helping to massacre civilians in Ukraine.”
Terrifying hardware: an Iranian Shahed 136 ‘suicide drone’ flying over Kyiv (Photo: Getty Images)
Among the leading universities where work with Iran has taken place is Cranfield University, a research institution specialising in science, aerospace and engineering, which has a strategic partnership with the RAF.
Academics there and at other UK universities have co-authored academic papers that acknowledge a military application. Others are working alongside academics at Iranian universities that have been sanctioned by Britain, the US and the European Union.
One of the key pieces of UK-Iran research uncovered by the JC was jointly produced by Ahmad Najjaran Kheirabadi, a researcher at Imperial College, and scientists from Shahrood University of Technology and Ferdowsi University of Mashhad.
Ahmad Najjaran Kheirabadi (Photo: Imperial College London)
It examined upgrading the lightweight, two-stroke engines used to power drones, including its HESA Shahed 136, which is being used by Russia to attack Ukrainian targets.
The study examined the advantages of installing a fuel- injection system into such engines, saying the upgraded propulsion system “has benefits such as high power, low fuel consumption… high flight endurance, tolerance of extreme environmental conditions”.
It added: “In the modern world, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are widely in operation because of their key and important benefits, and they play a role in the military.”
It continued: “The UAV propulsion is a critical part, and its mission is to overcome the drag to maintain the speed of the UAV and accelerate it, as well as to overcome the gravity to the rising UAV.”
The research, published in March 2019, was “supported by” Iran’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, whose former minister, Kamran Daneshjoo, and the current deputy minister, Mohammad Nouri, are both on the UK sanctions list.
Dr Soheil Jafari (Photo: Cranfield University)
An expert on Iran’s military, Farzin Nadimi, senior fellow at the Washington Institute, said Imperial College’s research could have significant military applications. The 30-horsepower engine discussed in the paper could be used in smaller drones, he said.
A second key piece of research — a joint study between the Centre for Propulsion Engineering at Cranfield University and the Iranian University of Science and Technology, Tehran — is also under the spotlight.
Despite having close ties with the UK Ministry of Defence, Cranfield examined the “military applications” of advanced systems known as “fuzzy controllers” in turbojet engines alongside the Iranians.
The 2021 study says: “This controller enables the engine for better manoeuvrability, which is an important aspect for military and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) applications.” The research, it added, “confirms the feasibility of the designed controllers for real-world applications”, and “is an appropriate candidate for control of the next generation of military aero-engines”.
It was carried out by Dr Soheil Jafari, a lecturer in Gas Turbine Thermal Management and Control at Cranfield, and Tehran-based Seyed Jalal Mohammadi Doulabi Fard.
Ukrainian military experts show downed drones to representatives of diplomatic missions (Photo: Getty Images)
Dr Jafari was previously an assistant professor at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, Iran’s top technology research institute, which has been on the UK sanctions list since 2012 due to its links to Iran’s nuclear programme.
Nadimi said that Iranian universities have played a “significant role” in the nation’s drone warfare programme since the mid-1980s.
He said: “All engineering faculties receive good funding for drone research. The IRGC have prioritised drone research for several years. Almost all of these universities have signed contracts with the IRGC or the Ministry of Defence for military-related research.”
He added: “Almost all Iranian drones are powered by two-stroke engines, including the Shahed-136, which is extensively used in the Ukrainian war. With regards to drone development, Iran is known to have developed several two-stroke engines… Both suicide and reconnaissance drones use them.”
British sanctions law prohibits the transfer of both military and “dual use” technology to Iran or anyone “connected” with it. It also bans what the regulations call “technical assistance” in the “development, production, assembly [and] testing” of restricted technology, and “any other technical service”.
Providing this to any person or institution based in or connected to Iran is a criminal offence, punishable by up to seven years imprisonment.
Based on an analysis of thousands of papers published in scientific journals since 2017, the JC has unearthed hundreds of projects in which British academics and institutions have collaborated with Iranian universities that have been sanctioned due to their involvement with its nuclear programme.
Most are on non-military subjects, but legal experts said that working with Iranians at these sanctioned universities on non-nuclear topics also risked breaching the sanctions rules.
These rules state that British citizens or residents must not engage in actions that “directly or indirectly” benefit a person or institution that is named on the official sanctions list.
Such benefits, says a Treasury guide to the sanctions, include “assets of every kind — tangible or intangible, movable or immovable, which are not funds”. The legal experts, speaking anonymously, said this could include intellectual property, especially if it led to a commercial product.
Other studies unearthed by the JC include research by Sharif University scientist Abolfazl Azarniya, who published a 2019 paper on the use of lasers to manufacture “high value added parts” made from titanium alloy for the aerospace industry, where it had “a wide range of applications”.
Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko with others look at a crater outside a clinic following a Russian attack (Photo: Getty Images)
Among his co-authors were researchers at Imperial College and Liverpool. As well as drones, Iran’s aerospace industry makes military helicopters, transport planes and fighter jets, and has been subject to UK sanctions since 2010.
Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University has been on the UK sanctions list since May 2011, as it “carries out scientific research in relation to Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities”. Like Sharif university, it is also on the US sanctions list.
The JC found more than 200 papers jointly written by Shahid Beheshti University and UK-based academics, including one on blocking electronic eavesdroppers.
It was co-authored by members of the Iranian university and Zabih Ghassemlooy, who heads the Optical Communications Research Group at Northumbria University, and is also chief editor of the British Journal of Applied Science and Technology.
Another conference paper concerned the development of futuristic electronic devices that use superconductors and graphene, the carbon material one atom thick whose discovery by UK-based scientists won a Nobel Prize in 2010. It could be used in next-generation wireless communications and “security”, the study said.
The authors included Samane Kalhor, now a researcher at the University of Glasgow, who received her doctorate from Shahid Beheshti; Majid Ghaantshoar, who is still based at the Iranian institution; and several others from the University of Cambridge.
Iran’s weapons industry also manufactures arms, including ballistic missiles that it may one day use against Israel, which the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has described as a “cancerous tumour” that must be erased.
A government spokesman told the JC: “We will not accept collaborations which compromise our national security. We have made our systems more robust and expanded the scope of the Academic Technology Approval Scheme to protect UK research from ever-changing global threats, and refuse applications where we have concerns.”
A Cranfield University spokesman told the JC: “In an increasingly complex global operating environment, Cranfield University takes a thorough and robust approach to international collaborations and the security of our research.
"We review our security policies and processes on a continual basis to ensure that research activities fully comply with guidelines and legal obligations.”
A Northumbria University spokesperson said: “In line with our processes to mitigate risks for research projects, we are looking into the information provided to us. To ensure fairness and consistency it will take time to undertake a thorough assessment, so it would be premature to comment further.”
An Imperial College London spokesperson said: “All Imperial research is subject to Imperial’s Ethics Code and we have robust relationship review policies and due diligence processes in place, with our responsibility to UK national security given the utmost importance.”
A Glasgow University spokesperson said: “Research teams work in collaboration with academics, institutions and organisations from a broad spectrum of global sectors.
“All research carried out at the University of Glasgow is underpinned by polices and a Code of Good Practice that ensures it is conducted to the highest standards of academic rigour.”