The 11 UK universities accused of helping to develop Iran's 'suicide drones'

Cambridge - Nicholas.T.Ansell/PA
Cambridge - Nicholas.T.Ansell/PA

The University of Cambridge is among almost a dozen UK universities accused of helping to develop Iran’s weapons including “suicide drones”.

Britain bans the export of military technology to Iran as well as “dual use” technology which can be used for both civilian and military applications.

The Government has also recently imposed fresh sanctions on Iranians supplying Russia with kamikaze drones being used in Ukraine.

However, an investigation has revealed that researchers in the UK have helped the Iranian regime to develop sophisticated technology that can be used in its drone programme and fighter jets.

In response to the findings, reported by The Jewish Chronicle, MPs have called for ministers to launch an investigation into how the academic research was carried out as the Government said that Britain would “not accept collaborations which compromise our national security”.

Studies have potential military applications

At least 11 British universities are involved, with staff producing at least 16 studies with potential Iranian military applications.

Key pieces of research have been conducted by academics at the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, the University of Glasgow, Cranfield University and Northumbria University.

In one project, funded by Tehran, researchers in the UK worked to improve drone engines by boosting their altitude, speed and range. Another British university worked with Iranian researchers to test new controls for jet engines to increase their “manoeuvrability and response time” in military applications.

Alicia Kearns, chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, said she would be calling for an inquiry into the “horrifying collaboration – one that I fear 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.

David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, also called for an investigation into the “deeply troubling” findings, calling on the Government to “urgently investigate whether or not UK universities and academics have breached UK sanctions on Iran regarding collaboration on military technologies”.

Among the key pieces of UK-Iran research uncovered by the investigation was one jointly produced by Ahmad Najjaran Kheirabadi, a researcher at Imperial College London, and scientists from Shahrood University of Technology and Ferdowsi University of Mashhad.

The research analysed upgrading the engines used to power drones including HESA Shahed 136, which is currently being used by Russia to attack Ukrainian targets.

The UK-Iran projects were supported by Iran’s ministry of science, research and technology. Kamran Daneshjoo, a former minister in the department, and Mohammad Nouri the current deputy minister, are both on the UK sanctions list.

Iran has also worked with Cranfield University near Bedford, which has a strategic partnership with the RAF, and specialises in engineering, aerospace and science. Academics there have co-authored papers which acknowledge a military application.

In a joint 2021 study between Cranfield University and the Iranian University of Science and Technology, it examined the “military applications” of advanced systems known as “fuzzy controllers” in turbojet engines.

Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University has been on the UK sanctions list since May 2011. However, one paper unearthed by the investigation concerned the development of electronic devices using superconductors and graphene which, the paper said, 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 several others from the University of Cambridge.

The calls for an investigation come as the Government is under mounting pressure to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which controls Iran’s drone and missile arsenal, as a terrorist organisation.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British Army colonel and chemical weapons expert, said: “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 am nearly speechless.

“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.”

Cambridge University did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Robust approach’ to collaborations

A spokesman for Cranfield University 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.”

A Northumbria University spokesman 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.”

An Imperial spokesman 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 Spokesman for Glasgow University told the Jewish Chronicle: “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.”

A UK Government spokesman 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.”