Where freedom meets repression: Australian academics tread a fine line over ties to Iran

<span>Iran's president, Ebrahim Raisi, at Al-Zahra university in Tehran in October 2022, where he urged professors and students to oppose those protesting at the death of Mahsa Amini.</span><span>Photograph: Iranian Presidential Office Handout/EPA</span>
Iran's president, Ebrahim Raisi, at Al-Zahra university in Tehran in October 2022, where he urged professors and students to oppose those protesting at the death of Mahsa Amini.Photograph: Iranian Presidential Office Handout/EPA

In April 2023 the Iranian government was in the midst of a brutal crackdown. Weeks earlier, thousands had been on the streets, protesting against the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old detained for an alleged violation of the country’s strict dress codes for women.

That month, with hundreds of Iranians who had taken part in the demonstrations dead or in jail, and the regime ramping up its repressive tactics, the Australian foreign minister wrote to more than 30 university vice-chancellors and presidents.

In the letter, Penny Wong outlined the government’s concern over the human rights situation in Iran and asked the university leaders to pause joint work with Iranian institutions.

“I urge you to join with the Government to put on hold existing cooperation with Iranian entities, including … universities, and to refrain from any proposed new engagement,” Wong wrote.

The request was not made in a vacuum. In recent years, as conflict has spread and global tensions escalated, governments across the world have expressed alarm at the proliferation of academic research with countries they deem a threat to national security.

Related: Academics in US, UK and Australia collaborated on drone research with Iranian university close to regime

The response from university leaders to the foreign minister’s request is unknown, but since the letter was sent the Guardian has found more than 20 published papers involving collaboration between academics at Australian universities and researchers in Iran.

Many of the examples are in areas that would probably be deemed low threat, including cancer research and renewable energy.

But others are in areas that the government defines as critical technologies sensitive to the national interest, including artificial intelligence and biotechnology. This month the Guardian reported that Australian academics were among those who had collaborated on drone research with counterparts at an Iranian university.

The concern among many governments is that university research could be used to enhance military and surveillance technology in repressive regimes. In Iran, research conducted at national universities has been found to directly contribute to the country’s nuclear and drone programs.

In a 2022 report, Australia’s parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security expressed concern over research collaboration in critical technologies and recommended that universities “exercise greater caution with international research partnerships” in those areas.

They have direct control over academic direction and research priorities

Rana Dadpour

Daniel Roth, whose organisation United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) regularly highlights academic collaboration that it deems a security risk, says Iranian universities “don’t operate under the same principles of academic independence that we understand” .

He says academics are “ultimately directed by the regime and military when it comes to specific areas of research”.

Rana Dadpour, now a researcher on migration at James Cook University in Queensland, taught at an Iranian university for four years and saw up close how intertwined the institution was with the state.

“They have direct control over academic direction and research priorities,” she says. Some research areas would be directed by Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and could be used for “surveillance or military purposes”.

Dadpour says that after she became politically active, security units stationed at her university began to harass her, questioning her about her work and teaching. They complained about her clothes, telling her she should not wear jeans, and asked her to follow the strict dress code.

“I did not accept, so they did not renew my contract. Soon after that I decided to leave the country.”

Dadpour says many academics in Australia could not conceive of the level of interference in Iranian universities, because they operate so freely here.

She says there is a “knowledge gap among Australian academics on the extent of restrictions in Iran, mainly because of the lack of information coming out of Iran”.

Roth believes some universities in the west are “naive”, and that sharing research poses a potential vulnerability.

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As chief scientist at the University of New South Wales’ AI institute, Toby Walsh’s work is at the cutting edge of critical technology. In the past he has expressed alarm about the potential for Australian universities to inadvertently aid countries that pose a national security risk.

“I consider it more of a moral issue,” he says. “You shouldn’t be advancing the goals of a regime that is working against you.”

He says there are “perverse incentives” that encourage academics to publish, get grants and collaborate with universities overseas.

“You’ve got to remember,” he says, “universities at the end of the day are still monasteries. Collections of monks who are working largely independently on their own projects, and that freedom to work on what you choose is an immense positive. It’s why universities are powerhouses of innovation.”

It’s the desire not to stifle this innovation that forces governments to walk a fine line between defending national security and upholding academic freedom.

“Academic freedom is a great virtue, and universities are very careful about not stepping on the toes of researchers,” Walsh says.

Dadpour says academics need “clear guidelines”.

“It’s challenging, but it’s also necessary to establish a framework for ethical research collaboration.

“Because we all believe academic freedom is vital.”