Sunak says UK investigating report that universities working with Iran on drones

British PM pledges to ‘not accept collaborations which compromise our national security’ as he’s grilled in Parliament over allegations

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers the opening speech on the first day of the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London on June 21, 2023. (Henry Nicholls/Pool/AFP)
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers the opening speech on the first day of the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London on June 21, 2023. (Henry Nicholls/Pool/AFP)

LONDON — Britain’s government said Wednesday it was investigating allegations that UK universities have collaborated with Iran on drones and other sensitive technology despite a legal ban.

With Russia accused of unleashing Iranian-made attack drones in Ukraine, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was grilled in Parliament about the report by the Jewish Chronicle newspaper earlier this month.

“We take all allegations of breaches of export controls seriously and my understanding is that officials in the Department for Business and Trade are currently now investigating the allegations made in the recent press article cited,” Sunak said.

“We will not accept collaborations which compromise our national security,” he said, pointing to stepped-up controls on academic collaborations in technology.

At least 11 British universities, including Cambridge, Cranfield, Glasgow and Imperial College London, were named by the Jewish Chronicle as taking part in studies with potential Iranian military applications.

Citing analysis of thousands of papers published in scientific journals since 2017, the newspaper said that in one Iranian-funded project, UK researchers worked to improve the altitude, speed and range of drones.

Another university worked with Iranian scientists to test new control systems for jets, aimed at increasing their maneuverability and response times in “military applications,” it said.

File: In this photo released by the Iranian Army on August 25, 2022, a drone is launched from a warship in a military drone drill in Iran. (Iranian Army via AP)

Britain bans the export of military and “dual-use” technology to Iran, and has imposed sanctions against Iranian individuals and organizations accused of supplying drones to Russia for use in Ukraine.

The United States says that Russia has received hundreds of Iranian drones to attack Kyiv and “terrorize” Ukrainians, a charge denied by Tehran.

The White House said it would release a new government advisory to assist businesses and governments “to ensure they are not inadvertently contributing to Iran’s (drone) program.”

British universities cited in the Jewish Chronicle report insisted they complied with legal and academic obligations in their international collaborations.

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