UK scientist revealed advanced jet research in Tehran lecture

Aerospace expert gave a lecture to a sanctioned college with links to the IRGC


A top aviation scientist at a British university linked to the Ministry of Defence shared “the latest ideas and research” on Western jet engines at an Iranian college sanctioned for its role in the regime’s nuclear weapons programme, the JC can reveal.

Dr Soheil Jafari, who is based the Centre for Propulsion and Thermal Power Engineering at Cranfield University, gave the lecture via videolink in December 2020 at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, despite its links with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The disclosures come as the government announced that it would impose new sanctions on the regime — including broader powers targeting its efforts to proliferate arms and weapons technology — rather than heed widespread calls to proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist group.

More than a dozen British universities, including Cambridge, Imperial College, Glasgow, Edinburgh, King’s College London, Northumbria and Liverpool have been identified as being involved in research into military or “dual use” technology with institutions in Iran.

Dr Jafari gave the December 2020 lecture to Sharif University’s Aerospace Scientific Association, despite EU sanction documents saying that the institution “cooperates with the Iranian Ministry of Defence and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)”.

A leaflet publicising the event at Sharif University, which is sanctioned by the west, said Dr Jafari would “present the latest ideas and research and industrial achievements of major aircraft engine manufacturers Rolls-Royce, General Electric and Pratt & Witney”.

Dr Jafari’s talk, entitled The future of aircraft engine control: Challenges and Opportunities, would, the leaflet added, “familiarise attendees with the real challenges of designing and building these systems and how to solve these challenges”.

It focused on Rolls-Royce and American manufacturers General Electric and Pratt & Witney, which produce the world’s leading jet engines, including for the military.
Pratt & Witney makes the F135 engine used in F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft, described as the “most powerful and most advanced fighter engine ever produced”.

It follows a series of stories by the JC that exposed co-operation between British and Iranian universities on research that has possible military applications.

Last month, the Prime Minister announced an investigation into potential sanctions breaches in research highlighted by the JC, which includes studies on swarming drone technology, jet engines and armour plating. At least one of the projects was directly funded by the Iranian government.

The IRGC is behind Iran’s missile and drone programme. Iranian-made weapons have been sold to Russia, which has used them to attack Ukraine.

According to the EU, the Iranian college also has “a broader agreement with the IRGC Air Force” and a “significant record of engagement with the government of Iran in military or military related fields”.

Sharif University has been involved in Iran’s bid to become a nuclear-armed state since the 1990s, when it helped procure components for the centrifuges used to refine weapons-grade uranium.

Dr Jafari, who himself was previously an associate professor at Sharif University, joined Cranfield in 2017, specialising in jet engine performance. Cranfield has a strategic research partnership with the RAF and is also home to the UK’s Defence Academy, a secure military site.

According to the university’s terms and conditions of employment, it also provides academic services to the UK Secretary of State for Defence and conducts secret research.

Staff and sub-contractors are “given formal notice” that their work may be covered by the Official Secrets Act and are warned not to “do or permit to be done anything which they know or ought reasonably to know may result in a Secret Matter being disclosed”.

Since Dr Jafari joined the university, he has continued to co-operate with scientists in Iran, both at Sharif university and elsewhere.

He has been named as a co-author of eight papers for academic journals, researched and written with researchers in Iran.

One of the papers, published in 2021, dealt with “next generation” jet engine control systems which would, it stated, benefit the military.

He also published a paper on the behaviour of aircraft control surfaces — aerodynamic devices allowing a pilot to adjust and control the aircraft’s flight altitude — with two Sharif University scientists.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim, research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, told the JC: “Cranfield is trusted by the government on everything from cyber security to high-tech engines, and technology developed there holds the key to the US operational advantage on deployment.

“This could enable the development of sophisticated countermeasures to US aircraft, or even stimulate the creation of next-generation competitive models.

“We’re not just in jeopardy of leaking secrets for military use, but for use in irregular military strategies employed by the IRGC and its proxies, including Hezbollah, further fuelling their capacity to execute acts of terrorism across their vast criminal networks.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an expert in sanctions law confirmed that UK measures prohibited the transfer of listed military and “dual use” technology to Iran or anyone “connected” with it.

This includes a ban on providing “technical assistance” in the “development, production, assembly [and] testing” of restricted technology, and “any other technical service”.

In addition, Sharif University is on the UK list of sanctioned entities, which prevents UK nationals and residents from doing anything that “directly or indirectly” benefits it.

The expert said that this could include sharing intellectual property, especially if it led to the development of a commercially valuable product.

A Cranfield University spokesman said: “Cranfield University takes a thorough and robust approach to international collaborations and the security of our research.

“We have a comprehensive set of security policies and processes to ensure that research and teaching activities fully comply with guidelines and legal obligations.

“We are a member of the UK Research Integrity Organisation Office (UKRIO), a signatory to the Concordat to Support Research Integrity and we have systems and processes in place to uphold its principles.”

The university spokesman said Dr Jafari would not comment personally.

The disclosure comes as Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the UK was planning to “establish a new Iran sanctions regime” aimed at tackling “the threat Iran poses”.

In response to questions from MPs about technology being supplied to Russia for use in Ukraine, Cleverly said: “Working to ensure that Russia is not supported through military equipment exports is one of our priority functions, and that is particularly true with regard to Iranian technologies, whether drone technologies or others… preventing that brutal technology from falling into the hands of Russia or indeed anyone else remains a priority for the government.”

Asked by MPs why the new measures did not include proscribing the IRGC, Cleverly said the government would “keep these things under review”.

He added: “Nothing will be put permanently off the table or beyond use. The announcements…added to the pre-existing sanctions packages, give us a powerful tool of deterrence for Iranian behaviour that we intend to utilise fully if Iran’s behaviour does not change.”

The government imposed further asset freezes and travel bans against the regime’s leadership and targeted the IRGC’s Cyber Defence Command, which reportedly monitors the activity of dissidents within Iran.

But its decision not to proscribe the IRGC prompted a chorus of criticism from parliamentarians, analysts and Jewish groups.

Claudia Mendoza, co-CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council, told the JC: “It’s unclear what these sanctions will actually do to thwart Iran’s activities.They should certainly not come at the expense of dealing with the root of the problem, the IRGC, which should be proscribed as a terrorist organisation.”

The Board of Deputies said that it commended the tougher line on Tehran. But it added: “We reiterate our belief that the UK needs to proscribe the IRGC as an organisation, in full.

“The Iranian regime uses the IRGC to brutally suppress its own people, spread antisemitic propaganda and sponsor global terrorism.”

In recent months, the government has been facing increasing demands to ban the IRGC in its entirety.

In January, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the body was “behaving like a terrorist organisation and must now be proscribed as such”.

In April, over 100 MPs and members of the House of Lords wrote to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to demand action against the group which they said was “openly operating” in Britain, after the Metropolitan police announced it had foiled 15 plots by Iran to either kidnap or kill British or UK-based individuals.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Security Minister Tom Tugendhat are thought to be in favour of proscription.

However, the Foreign Office has pushed back against the move as it fears this would lead to a worsening diplomatic rift, forced closure of the UK embassy in Tehran and put intelligence work at risk.

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