German Academic Cooperation is Potential Sanctions Soft-spot

This week German intelligence confirmed (yet again) that Iran was secretly procuring illegal nuclear and missile technology during 2019. The Germans should also look closer to home though, because you don’t have to be a spy to appreciate that Iran has a less furtive route to the same destination: through international academic collaboration.

As the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control notes in its report, “The Academic Pipeline to Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Iran’s universities are crucial elements in the regime’s decades-long pursuit of nukes. In February 2019, the U.S. sanctioned Shahid Beheshti University (SUB) and Sharif University of Technology (SUT) for their nuclear research. Both institutes were already black- or gray-listed by, variously, the EU and the governments of Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway and Switzerland. Several Iranian universities are also connected to Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL).

But alarmingly, western universities, most especially in Germany, may themselves be feeding the drip of Iran’s relentless quest for nuclear proficiency.

That Germany is a likely weak-spot in the academic sphere is not surprising.

According to the German Chancellors’ Conference (“The Voice of the Universities”), “there are 77 formal agreements between higher education institutions in Germany and Iran, including exchanges of students, doctoral candidates and senior researchers, and encompassing joint research and publications.”  

In 2017, the German Chancellors’ Conference held a two-day seminar focusing on German-Iranian university cooperation. Twenty university leaders toured five Iranian universities to discuss “enhancing internationalization and managing partnerships between Universities in Germany and Iran.”

Academic cooperation is strongly supported by influential government and cultural agencies, including the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Goethe Institute, the German Embassy’s Deutsche Sprachintitut Tehran (DST), and the Ministry for Education and Research.  In fact, “[m]any Iranian scientists and academics were trained at German universities and support joint German-Iranian research projects and a strengthening of bilateral cooperation in higher education.”

Thus, Oldenburg University runs a program with the Physics department at the University of Guilan on the Caspian Sea. Founded in collaboration with West Germany in 1974, Guilan also happens to be a key hub for Iran’s nuclear physics research, while the German coordinating professor specializes in theoretical physics. (Oldenburg also runs academic exchanges with dozens of American universities, including UC San Diego, Penn State and Lehigh).

Rostock University also has a cooperation agreement with the Institute of Chemistry at Shiraz University through a contract signed as recently as December 2019. Accompanying the signing, the Rostock Chancellor added, “A few years ago I was on a DAAD exploration tour in Iran with Professor Neymeyr and was impressed by the scientific institutions there, but also by the incredible eagerness of the students to learn.”  The Iranian counterpart, Professor Bahram Hemmateenejad, is also tied to other German academic institutes including Braunschweig Technical University as well as the Max-Planck Institute for Colloids. Like Rostock, Passau University also has strong connections with Shiraz University in the fields of IT and IT Security.

Finally, the Technical University of Dresden (TUD) has a guest researcher in physical chemistry from Iran’s Amir Kebir University, a subordinate of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) and cited by various nonproliferation agencies as a likely nuclear procurement front and involved in illicit nuclear-related activities. Amir Kebir offers degrees from undergraduate to PhD level in nuclear engineering. Like Oldenberg, TUD also has partnerships with U.S. institutes of higher learning, including the University of Nevada, the Cooper Union in New York City and Rensselaer Polytechnic.

In the U.S., academic exchange with Iran is restricted by OFAC to undergraduate level and non-scientific disciplines like law, business and the social sciences. No such limits apply in Germany, which, for instance, actively encourages Iranians to “graduate-level engineering programs.”

As the present fiasco over the revocation of foreign student visas in the U.S. shows, it is important to ensure as far as possible that the vast swathe of blameless Iranian academics and students are not unfairly penalized due to the behavior of their own government and its agencies.  However, as with its long-standing political and commercial patronage of Iran, it is Germany that is once again stretching ‘cooperation’ in higher education to the outer limits of propriety.