WikiLeaks reveals how Durham got US funding for Iran project

Durham University received £300,000 from the US State Department for a series of projects that the US hoped would help it gather information on Iran, it has emerged.

February 17, 2011

A diplomatic cable sent to Washington by the US Embassy in London in 2008, recently released by WikiLeaks, details a string of proposals for which Durham sought funding, as well as providing a commentary on their value to the US.

The projects include seminars and exchanges involving Iranian journalists, academics, clerics and council workers. The embassy says their output could be published in Farsi and disseminated in Iran, as well as being broadcast there on radio and via the internet. The cable, highlighted by The Palatinate, Durham's student newspaper, describes the projects as being "under the auspices of Durham's School of Governmental Affairs" (sic).

The revelations have led to fears for the safety of Durham's 16 Iranian postgraduates should they return home. Concerns have also been raised with Times Higher Education about the implications for Ehsan Abdoh-Tabrizi, a doctoral student in Durham's School of Government and International Affairs, who was arrested in Tehran last year and subsequently jailed.

It was reported in January that he had been sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for taking part in anti-government activities and for having "relations with foreigners".

In a separate case, Reza Molavi, former director of Durham's Centre for Iranian Studies, was arrested in Tehran last April. He is reported to have been released earlier this year, but this has not been confirmed.

The embassy cable says the projects put forward for funding in 2008 were "likely to attract broad participation from individuals and non-governmental organisations in Iran, in some part due to the political cover among contacts within Iran which Durham has apparently been able to generate". It describes a member of staff at the university as "a key embassy contact".

The memo says the embassy "encouraged further...proposals for academic symposia or workshops drawing on (names deleted)'s networks within Iranian academia and unofficial policy circles".

Particular interest is expressed in an event involving local officials that could offer "a useful look inside Iranian politics at a grassroots level".

Durham's "demonstrated access to academic and civil institutions, reinforced by (name deleted)'s apparently successful creation of political cover with (the) authorities for Iranian participants", is also emphasised in the leaked dispatch.

The cable adds that "rapid support...may improve Durham's ability to pull together groups in these and other sectors of possible interest" to the US government.

Durham confirmed it had received a total of £300,000 from the US State Department for three projects, and said the money funded a range of workshops and symposia "engaging academics and clerics (including Iranians) from across the world".

Responding to questions from THE, the university said it was confident that its academic autonomy had not been compromised by the funding. Durham indicated that it would consider applying for money from the US State Department again.

It said it was satisfied that Mr Abdoh-Tabrizi's arrest and imprisonment were not related to his links with Durham, but said it had "no idea" how the publication of the memo might affect his situation. It said it would continue to liaise with his family on the matter.

On concerns about the cable's impact on other Iranian nationals at Durham, the university said it was "committed to dialogue...and will support them in discussing any concerns".

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