Sunak announces major probe into universities sharing drone research with Iran

A government source has confirmed the launch of a huge multi-department investigation


LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 21: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a speech at the opening session on the first day of the Ukraine Recovery Conference at InterContinental London O2 on June 21, 2023 in London, England. The UK and Ukraine jointly host the Ukraine Recovery Conference 2023 and will focus on mobilising international support for Ukraine's economic and social stabilisation and recovery from the effects of Russia's illegal war. (Photo by Henry Nicholls - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The Prime Minister has announced an inquiry into allegations that scientists at British universities have been helping Iran develop technology that could be used to upgrade its “suicide drone” programme.

The probe was announced in response to a JC investigation revealing that academics at more than a dozen UK universities, including Imperial College London, were working alongside their Iranian counterparts on drone research in an apparent breach of sanctions against the brutal regime.

The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, confirmed the probe at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. Government sources said the multi-departmental inquiry would involve officials from the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office, and science and technology experts.

With Iran’s suicide drones currently being deployed by Russia to bomb Ukraine, the JC revealed how UK academics were involved in research, some of it directly funded by the Iranian Government, to improve drone engines, boosting their altitude, speed and range.

Other UK researchers have been involved in jointly developing “game-changing” swarming drone technology that could allow hundreds of drones, aircraft, ships, missiles and underwater buoys to be operated simultaneously, using lasers.

Military experts said the advanced command-and-control system could enable Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — which runs its military drone programme — to launch “overwhelming” suicide swarm attacks on Israel or Western allies.

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”.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Sunak said:

"We take all allegations of breaches in export controls seriously and it's my understanding is that officials in the department for business and trade are now currently investigating the allegations made [In the Jewish Chronicle.]

"We will not accept collaborations that compromise our national security and that's why we've made our systems more robust, expanding the scope of the academic technology approval scheme to protect UK research from ever-changing global threats."

His statement came in response to a question from former cabinet minister David Davis MP, who highlighted how “David Rose has reported in the Jewish Chronicle that British universities have been undertaking research, in collaboration with Iranian researchers and universities, into areas with potential Iranian military applications, including in drone engines, fighter jets, battlefield armour, and laser communication”.

Davis asked the Prime Minister if he would “initiate an investigation into this, and take action to stop this failure of our sanctions regime?”

A government spokesman said: “We take all credible allegations of breaches of export control seriously and we will not accept collaborations which compromise our national security. We are investigating the recent reports.”

The investigation will span five Whitehall departments – the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office, the Department for Business and Trade, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, and HMRC, a government source confirmed.

HMRC has the power to bring criminal charges for sanctions breaches carrying a maximum penalty of seven years in jail and can also impose large financial penalties.

The announcement of the investigation follows a letter sent on Tuesday morning, from senior MPs and peers asking Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch to order an inquiry into whether the research highlighted by the JC breached UK sanctions.

The Parliamentarians’ letter cited 11 studies, disclosed by this newspaper, involving Iranian scientists and their counterparts at British universities, including at Imperial College and Kings College in London, Cranfield, Cambridge, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Northumbria.

The letter was signed by Conservatives David Davis MP, Bob Blackman MP, Stephen Crabb MP, Conservative Friends of Israel honorary president Lord Polak and former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP; Labour politicians Steve McCabe MP, Sharon Hodgson MP, Neil Coyle MP, Taiwo Owatemi MP, John Spellar MP and John Cryer MP; and crossbencher Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation.

It highlighted how Britain’s sanctions rules ban what they term “technical assistance” in the “development, production, assembly [and] testing” of restricted technology, and how some of studies involved Shahid Beheshti University and the Sharif University of Technology, which are sanctioned over their involvement in Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.

It mentioned how some of the studies openly stated their research had military applications, which, the letter said, “may constitute a breach of the sanctions covering restricted, military technologies”.

Sanctions rules “specifically prohibits the sharing of technology relating to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (and their control and communications systems)”, it added.

One of the signatories, Bob Blackman MP, who raised the matter with the Foreign Secretary in parliament last week, described the JC’s findings as “a vitally important issue of national security involving technology which may help not only Iran but Russia, in its war against Ukraine”. He added: “There must be the most thorough investigation.”

Steve McCabe MP, chair of Labour Friends of Israel, said: “I am appalled at the allegation that British universities may have helped Tehran to develop the technology which it is using to spread violence across the Middle East and to assist Putin’s war in Ukraine.

“The government must both urgently investigate this potential serious breach of sanctions and, as Labour has repeatedly argued, immediately proscribe the IRGC which controls the pernicious drone programme.”

Lord Carlile said: “The letter draws attention to a very serious situation that could well have led to loss of life. It can only be right that the government orders an immediate investigation.”

The British universities involved in the collaborations have all denied any wrongdoing.
A spokesman for Cranfield University said it “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.”

An Imperial College spokesman said all its research was subject to its 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 spokesman for Glasgow University said: “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.”

An Edinburgh University spokesman said: “We are keenly aware of issues of national security and comply with all UK Government guidelines”.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for King’s College London said the university had “robust policies and risk evaluation processes” and observed “national and international security requirements and relevant regulatory guidelines.”

After confirming the investigation, the government spokesman added: “We have made our systems more robust and expanded the Academic Technology Approval Scheme to protect UK research from ever-changing global threats, and refuse applications where we have concerns.”

The University of Cambridge didn't respond to a request for comment.

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