UK universities accused of helping Iran develop suicide drones and fighter jets

Institutions said to have worked with Tehran on research with military applications

A drone over Kyiv in October last year, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. AFP
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Iranian researchers linked to Tehran's drone programme have developed technological upgrades for the equipment while working on scientific programmes at leading British universities.

MPs have called for an inquiry after universities were accused of helping Iran to develop military technology that can be used in suicide drones and fighter aircraft.

The University of Cambridge is one of 11 institutions whose scientists have reportedly produced at least 16 studies, some of which were funded by Tehran, that have potential military applications.

The research, highlighted by the Jewish Chronicle, was conducted despite the UK banning the export of so-called dual-use technology, which has civilian and military applications, to Iran.

The accusation levelled at UK universities comes as sanctions are being imposed on Iranian individuals and organisations supplying Russia with kamikaze drones that have been used to attack Ukraine.

On the back of the accusation, MPs have called for an investigation into how research that is potentially damaging to the UK and breaks sanctions was allowed to be carried out.

Alicia Kearns, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Select Committee called for an inquiry into "horrifying collaboration”, a demand that was echoed by David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, who said it was "deeply troubling".

One study was jointly produced by Imperial College researcher Ahmad Najjaran Kheirabadi and scientists from Iranian institutes Shahrood University of Technology and Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, the Jewish Chronicle reports.

The research, which was funded by Tehran, looked at how to upgrade lightweight drone engines, including for the Shahed 136, which is being used extensively by Russia.

Another project, by Cranfield University and the Iranian University of Science and Technology, looked at the “military applications” of advanced systems known as “fuzzy controllers” in jet engines.

“This controller enables the engine for better manoeuvrability, which is an important aspect for military and unmanned aerial vehicles applications,” the 2021 study said.

Cranfield has close links with the RAF and specialises in engineering, aerospace and science.

Another paper looked at the development of electronic devices that use superconductors and graphene that could be used in next-generation wireless communications and security.

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 others from the University of Cambridge.

More than 200 papers have been jointly written by Shahid Beheshti University and UK academics, the Chronicle found,

They include one on blocking electronic eavesdroppers, which was co-authored by Iranian researchers and Zabih Ghassemlooy.

Prof Ghassemlooy heads the Optical Communications Research Group at Northumbria University and is also chief editor of the British Journal of Applied Science and Technology.

Ms Kearns said the research “risks breaching sanctions in place around sensitive and dual-use technologies”.

“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,” she added.

Mr Lammy called for the government to “urgently investigate whether or not UK universities and academics have breached UK sanctions on Iran regarding collaboration on military technologies”.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British Army colonel and chemical weapons expert, said the report rendered him "nearly speechless".

"I can think of no reason that any British universities should do any research with Iranian universities and if they are collaborating on projects with military applications.

“I assume that government security services and other departments will be fully investigating these claims and acting accordingly if there is substance in these accusations.”

A Cranfield University representative said: “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.”

I can think of no reason that any British universities should do any research with Iranian universities and if they are collaborating on projects with military applications
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

A Northumbria University representative 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 at this stage.”

In response, Imperial, 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 representative 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.”

The UK government said: "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.”

The University of Cambridge has been approached for comment.

Updated: June 09, 2023, 12:02 PM