‘Iranian banned from a TU because of nuclear weapons programme’

The security services have prevented an Iranian researcher from gaining knowledge at a Dutch TU that could have been used for Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.

For some years now, all scientists associated with certain Iranian universities and knowledge institutions have been banned. (Photo: Justyna Botor)

This was published in the Annual Report (in Dutch) of the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) which handles threats, including knowledge security, to the Netherlands.

The latest Annual Report states that Iran has valuable theoretical nuclear knowledge, ‘but because of sanctions, it is hard for Iran to carry out experimental research. Iranian researchers and students come to the West, including to technical universities in the Netherlands, to acquire practical knowledge and skills.’

This is alleged to have been thwarted at least once. The report does not specify which technical university it was, and it is also not clear whether the person in question was already working there or wanted to work there. The information in the AIVD annual report cannot be checked by external people.

So while the AIVD writes that it has prevented knowledge relevant for the Iranian nuclear weapon programme from falling into Iranian hands, the question is also whether the barred researcher had or could have had access to relevant material. This does not necessarily have to be so. For some years now, all scientists associated with certain Iranian universities and knowledge institutions have been banned (the EU sanctions list). In its Advice helpline (available on the intranet), TU Delft reports that partnering these institutions is punishable, while in its instructions to universities, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that it is ‘almost certainly not permitted’.

Very strict adherence to this policy could be dire, as proved by an example in 2020 about which the Argos radio programme reported at length (in Dutch) this week. It concerns Daryaa, an Iranian student at TU Delft who is completing her doctoral research on social networks. While her article is almost ready for publication and she can then obtain her doctorate, her supervisor Prof. Frances Brazier of Systems Engineering informs her that the new European Union sanctions mean that their collaboration has to be ended. The reason is that Daryaa started her doctoral dissertation at Sharif University in Teheran which is under sanctions.

“I do not see how the research that we did can have a negative application, militarily or otherwise,” says Daryaa’s other supervisor, Professor Martijn Warnier of Complex Systems Design to Argos journalist Saar Slegers. But in 2020 he saw no other option than to step out of Daryaa’s research. She has still not obtained her doctorate. When Argos informs Warnier of the option of making exceptions to the ban, it appears that he did not know about this as he would otherwise have tried it. Warnier also claims that the Executive Board, that warns researchers of risks, did not mention this option. The Advice helpline mentioned above also does not mention the possibillity of exceptions, while the Ministry’s instructions to universities states: ‘If the character of the collaboration is more indirect, exceptions to the ban can be made’.

Incidentally, strict compliance with the rules does originate from somewhere. In 2019, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok announced a stricter screening of students and researchers from Iran that was to start with immediate effect. The reason was an Iranian student at TU Delft (in Dutch) that was suspected of gathering knowledge about making and launching rockets.

Delta, Saskia Bonger/HOP, Bas Belleman

Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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