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Durham University engulfed in Wikileaks allegations

8 February 2011

by Daniel Johnson and Jack Battersby

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In an official statement, Carolyn Fowler, Durham University Registrar has said:

“The University has been made aware that a confidential document which details academic funding applications made by the University, or by individuals acting on the University’s behalf, has been leaked on the internet.

“Durham University has established processes for the management of academic income and receives funding from a broad range of research and education partners whilst remaining true to the principles of independent academic discovery.”

No-one from the University has been made available for an interview with Palatinate at this time.

———————————————————————————————————————————————–

A recently released Wikileaks cable suggests that Durham University has been involved with the U.S. State Department in gathering information on Iran, in return for substantial secret funding.

The cable suggests that the University was offered and may have accepted over $400,000 from the U.S. State Department for running a series of seminars “under the auspices of Durham University’s School of Governmental Affairs”. The cable dates from April 2008 and emphasises the usefulness of Durham’s ties with high ranking Iranian officials as “political cover” for the projects.

Originally posted on Friday evening as part of the Telegraph’s ongoing release of U.S Embassy Cables, it has since been removed from their website. Current members of the School of Government and International Affairs (SGIA) have been named in the cable.

According to the cable, sourced from the U.S. Embassy in London, it appears that these seminars were used as a platform for offering “U.S. and USG (U.S Government) observers a useful look inside Iranian politics at a grassroots level”.

The document alleges that Durham has “networks within Iranian academia and unofficial policy circles,” including one academic who is linked to the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), a branch of Iran’s military founded to prevent internal dissidence and uprising. In November 2007, the academic then became a spokesman for the Iranian National Security Council.

It is believed that the University has held a number workshops and seminars with the dual purpose of bringing over reform-minded Iranian students, as well as government officials.

The cable states: “Durham University’s demonstrated access to academic and civil institutions, reinforced by [name removed by Palatinate]‘s apparently successful creation of political cover with IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran] authorities for Iranian participants, gives this proposal the strongest prospects of broad, meaningful Iranian participation given the restrictive current political conditions in Iran.”

If true, the allegations will raise serious questions about the conduct of several senior academics and staff within Durham University. Any Iranian students travelling to Durham for the seminars are unlikely to have been aware of how they were funded.

It remains University policy to strongly advise students and academics against all travel to Iran. “Durham University does not wish to impose a blanket ‘ban’ on travel to Iran or to override any academic consideration which may be given to proposals to travel to this region. However, we would like to take this opportunity to stress some of the sensitivities around travel to Iran for Durham members at this time and to clarify that the University is currently unable to sanction travel insurance for any University member wishing to travel to this country.”

From the Cable:

“Durham Workshops: Civil Society ——————————-

6. (C/NF) An ambitious project at Durham University, entitled “Iran-U.S. Civil Society Engagement” (lasting 12 months, asking $123,050 in funding) aims at bridging “the communicative gap between influential Iranian individuals affiliated with strategic research centers” and their U.S. counterparts, and would convene additional and expanded symposia along the lines of recent (2007) Durham events held with USG [U.S. Government] assistance… The workshops and symposia would provide the opportunity and space for engagement and exchanges among individuals and institutions in Iran and the U.S. who, though private academics and entrepreneurs themselves, bring significant degrees of informed perspective and critical ability to bear on strategic and regional questions of interest to both countries.”

Stay tuned to www.palatinate.org.uk as we publish further excerpts from the leaked document. Please e-mail news@palatinate.org.uk if you have any information regarding the case.

The story is now gaining national media attention. Ian Black (The Guardian’s Middle East Editor) has blogged about the leaks here and the Northern Echo have published an article.

  • Chris McQuillan

    It seems a terrible shame that Durham University is turning the way of all big business.

    Corrupt, greedy and morally bankrupt.

    For JCRs attempting to encourage transparency and integrity at undergraduate level in all aspects of their day to day business, their example is undermined by those at the top.

  • Alex Cross

    @Chris – I know the university should try and lead by example in aspects of transparency, as you mentioned, but at the same time, I think potential threats to the security of nations in times such as these mean that this kind of thing could be justified. Sure, Durham may have been “caught out”, but do you really think we’re the only institution helping with this (if it is true). That’s a ridiculous notion, as the USG will be willing to try any available method to gather any additional information regard Iran. If a few lecturers collaborated with the USG in helping them gather understanding of possible threats/security issues, then more power to them. MI5/6 do this all the time.

  • anonymous

    Ah and I’d just booked a week’s holiday in Iran..

  • Anon.

    I personally feel that this is a spectacular way of moving past cuts imposed by our own government and finding funding elsewhere. I can only hope that the University will continue such efforts and as such avoid tripling student fees. I applaud wikileaks for showing other universities that Durham is the most original and innovative amongst them.

  • Freddie Ligertwood

    Could you post the full text of the cable? It doesn’t appear to be available anywhere…

  • Chris McQuillan

    @Alex – I don’t disagree about the importance of national security at all, but the university doesn’t need more bad press. There’s a way of managing these things that means it doesn’t look like bribery and corruption. If it was openly announced that the United States was sponsoring the seminars to promote awareness of Iranian culture, politics and society then, sure, some people might not attend thinking its likely to be skewed and biased, but it doesn’t reek of corruption.

    It’s hard ascertain exactly what’s happened here, yet, but I certainly hope it turns out that it’s not just corruption and a quick buck for the university.

  • Bobi

    So, let me get this straight….
    This Wikileaks story shows that two of the Iranian staff members in the School for Government and International Affairs have political cover with Iranian Authorities and are known contacts of (and recipients of funding from)the US Goverment. Yes?

    Eshan (see here http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=10564) is a student in the same School for Government and his prison sentence includes 5 years for conspiracy against the regime and for collaborating with foreign agents. The Guardian last year (and Palatinate) criticisee Durham Uni over Eshan’s arrest for taking money from the IRANIAN government. Yes?

    Are these issues related?
    And if so it looks like this uni accepts money from both sides and cares little who gets caught in the crossfire…

  • Samina

    I think there should be a limit for transparency and such mantras. I do not know what good it does to publish “yet to be verified” or even confirmed news. But be sure that you have put the life and freedom of many Iranian students who are studying at SGIA or take part in its seminars, in danger.

    These students need to go back to Iran either after finishing their studies or for visiting their loved ones. Where would Palatine staff would then be to watch thembeing interrogated, banned from getting out of the country or imprisoned on the suspicion of spionage?

    So Well done with your triumph for endangering elites.

  • Anon.

    So this guy is an Iranian agent accepting money from USG to bring in over reform-minded students to Durham? and send them back to Iran, where they’ll be without a doubt imprisoned. Quite a pathetic foreign policy if you ask me.

    And since we are at it, is this not the same department accused of accepting money from IRG the previous year?

    That fund’s now gone, and replaced by an equally illegit one! Just what the heck’s going on in that shining yellow building on Elvet Hill Road, ironically named ‘Al-Qasimi’.

  • Matthew

    So, this cable. Can we get a look at it?

  • Anon.

    @ Matthew: Download ‘Cablegate.7z’ you can also google it. Then not only you can have a closer look at this cable but Assange’s entire treasure.

  • David

    In all fairness the only evidence is that they were offered there’s no proof of any acceptance, to be honest I think spying on Iran is a reality of the world today. Lots of HEU and terrorist groups operating within it? Who wouldn’t want to keep a close eye.

  • George

    Reminds me of when doing my dissertation my attempts to see my (Iranian) dissertation tutor where completely unsuccessful, until I finally got told he had been arrested in Jordan for spying. Quick change of tutor and no more was said.

    For the guy querying Al Qasimi building, it was funded by Sheikh Al Qasimi of Sharjah to promote the education of the Middle East, ironically enough less then 2 years after accepting the grant, the university stopped offering a degree in that subject.

  • Matthew

    @Anon. (useful name btw): Already tried (archive downloaded yesterday afternoon), search for Durham University doesn’t turn up anything relevant. What’s needed is either an actual date or the reference ID for the cable.

  • another_anon

    @Samina,

    Such a charge as you state is shameful. Such reporting is not only entirely ethical but should be applauded.

    Firstly, The Palatinate is reporting events, using evidence supported by two incredibly reliable sources: wikileaks and the Telegraph. It has every right to do so and they should be commended on taking this difficult decision.

    Secondly, it is the university that has put us in this situation, not the actions of the Palatinate. If the university feels prepared to take money from dubious sources, it should be aware that there may be negative consequences for the university and every one of its students.

    Thirdly, daring to suggest that, by reporting this, the paper is putting lives at risk is deplorable. The source is already available on wikileaks and will be well known to Iranian authorities by now.

    Finally (and referencing the plight of Ehsan, the Durham PhD student imprisoned in Tehran), you seem to be suggesting that it is the actions of students that are putting lives at risk. I would argue that it is not the students of Durham university that have imprisoned Ehsan. It is not the students of Durham university that have sentenced him to seven years in prison, subjected him to torture and isolation. You are excusing the Iranian regime, an authoritarian regime that is a well known violator of human rights and that – according to reports – executes an individual on average every eight hours. You should examine where you think the real problem lies and the university should examine how it feels it should respond. Its current policy of avoidance and complicity in the face of funding doesn’t seem to be working – for it or its students.

    Transparency and strong ethics are what’s needed, not more secrecy and poor decision making.

  • Samina

    I do not excuse the Iranian government. Neither believe that it is the student’s action which has put Ehsan in prison. It seems that you didn’t get my point. Transparency and all these extremely positive notions work in democratic societies with democratic governments. But if you put yourself in the shoes of an authoritarian regime who has been highly securitised since last presidential elections you will see every support coming from Western countries as proof of the accusations against Ehsan or people like him. All these transparency, support etc, not only have not reduced unjust imprisonments, execution etc, but it has actually made it far more widespread. Don’t believe me, look at the statics. Knif is a very useful tool, it depends who picks it up, a surgeon or a drunk burglar? So is transparency and support for peers etc.

    As for platinnium and the wikileaks news, I really don’t know what good it has done which can be compared to the damage already pointed out. Yes Iranian authorities have been probabely informed of Wikileaks news, but when it is published in Durham Students newspaper it is then a bigger damage, as it is a self confession in the eyes of Iranian authorities. Since they have denied Wikileaks news about their own actions, they cannot accuse people based on Wikileaks cables. But they can and will do when it is published by university newspaper.

    As I already mentioned, it is difficult for you guys to understand how things work in a country with completely different culture, history, government and judiciary system. They do not act from your point of view but quite opposite.

    I believe instead of sticking to some mottoes, it is wiser to stick to actions which has less damage to all people concerned and more benefit to all, including university’s reputation.

    I believe are many other options for dealing with wrong doings than publicy announcing it and stirring things up, particularely when the news is “yet to be confirmed”

  • AnonMcAnon

    Samina you’re talking shit. I’m not even going to expend the effort tearing apart your idiotic arguments. You’re just wrong in every way.

    Oh and the paper is called ‘Palatinate’ not ‘platinnium ‘.

  • Samina

    Well don’t bother. When you talk out of pure ignorance an head in skies
    it is better to shut up.
    it is such idiotic approaches that has made Iranian’s movement impotent. Because people like you talk out of safety of their bedrooms in a British city and have not even breathed one day in an authoritarian environment to see how it feels, and how any hand helping hand can be used to strangle you. Or how other people’s show of transparency can be used as a sword.
    So don’t waste your breath over something you do not have a clue.

    Thanks for reminding the name though. Oh and if you are among newspaper colleagues, next time at least verify first. That is minimum required ethics I guess.

  • another_anon

    I think what I’m getting at (and I personally don’t think you’re speaking shit Samina and am not going to slap down an argument without giving a proper riposte) is that I do appreciate that support of those in many other countries is delicate. I also appreciate that any sort of ‘intervention’ can be more harm that good. But surely inaction is a crime too.

    Whilst inappropriate ‘help’ is thoroughly wrong, trying to prevent Orientalism (Said) at the expense of doing nothing to at least raise awareness of basic human rights (which surely exist in one form or another) and their violations is wrong.

    Better – as we’re both arguing, I think – to take action within our communities, as long as we understand the situation and the action is appropriate. I personally believe the university has taken inappropriate action by accepting money from dubious sources. I think that the appropriate thing to do is to highlight this to the university to ensure this doesn’t happen again. If transparency and ethics are already there, there will be no sword to be used by against us.

    I think the difference in our argument is that you feel the damage can be contained by under-exposure; I feel the damage has been done by the university, and under-exposure would increase the danger of this happening again and force them to deal with the situation in a less laissez-faire manner.

  • another_anon

    correction (sorry): I feel the damage has been done by the university, and under-exposure would increase the danger of this happening again. However, holding the university to right will lessen the chance of this happening again, as well as forcing them to deal with the current situation in a less laissez-faire manner.

  • Samina

    I’m quite confused as to which anon wrote the 2 last parts, but thanks. I think you got some of my points. I agree that if the university has really done what it has been stated by Wikileaks, then they are accountable. They have done real damage not only to their own reputation but also to the future of many of their students. They are ethically obliged to take any necessary repairing steps.
    I also agree that actions must be taken to prevent further wrong doings.
    But I would like to emphasise that when taking actions we should consider everybody at university. We are one community with members from different countries. We must be careful to reduce the chance of harming them in the process. I have heard of Iranian students from other universities being banned from coming back to UK on the basis of taking part in US organised conferences (in engineering). And have seen a couple of them being quite shaken after these revelations as they are worried what would happen to them going back to Iran after taking part in SGIA’s seminars.
    I just hope that there has been some misunderstanding and in reality things have not been as it has been portrayed.

  • another_anon

    I think we all wish it to be some misunderstanding. It would be a shame for the university to be involved in such shady business, a shame for all of us, and I entirely agree with your points that this could compromise the reputation of themselves and the students.

    I am ‘another_anon’. I don’t wish to reveal my name for the sake of my studies. however, comments from any other ‘anon’s are not mine; apologies for any confusion caused.

  • Anon.

    I would petition for an immediate change of management at SGIA and higher levels of management at your Univeristy also.

    Oh btw, I remember VC Chris Higgins defending the Iranian funded seminars, during one such seminar, under the excuse of freedom of expression.

    He’s been silent on this one so far. He was silent on the BNP’s scheduled visit to Union Society to partake in a ‘debate’.

    He is mmmmmm pathetic or perhaps just a sterling thirsty whore.

  • Anon.

    this is the original Anon.™

  • Lewis Morgan

    Do you really think that an article by the Palatinate would stop a government from its activities, get serious.

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  • another_anon

    Nope, but the article getting noticed by the Guardian might make a few waves…

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/10/wikileaks-durham-university-iran-us-embassy

  • Samina

    @ Morgan

    You are right in some ways. But it is a shame that an academic institution of one country does the dirty job of another country and government for them in an unethical, dishonest way which creates risks for many who are inovolved, unknowing what is behind this so called academic environment.

    I wish the university would explain its definition of terms such as “ethics”, apparently it means clandestine innovative spionnage.

  • Samina

    By the way, it is interesting to know that US State department is an “education and research partner”. Next we might find US Education Department as a “Defence Partner”.

  • http://www.idcredit.org/ Kevin

    I may have completely missed the point here but it sounds like Durham was PAID money by the USA for this and thus had more money to spend on your teaching? Helping Iranianian and USA politicians understand each other better sounds like quite a good thing too.

  • http://www.paydayloantruth.org/ Mark

    No, you didn’t miss the point. You are entirely correct. The OP missed the point. I think some people have a tendency to want to see scandal in every page of every WikiLeaks release when the vast majority of it is completely mundane.

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    I wish we had mods who deleted stories/edited headlines if they were inaccurate.

  • Paul

    And the University of Durham receiving funding from the US State Dept in order to conduct research into aspects of Iranian socio-cultural and political life is wrong *how*, exactly? If it allows the West a window into the dynamics of Iranian society, what is the problem? Western governments subsidise or fund outright these kind of projects all the time.

    The main problem at Durham is a small bunch of disaffected young Iranian PhD students who wish to paint the University black regardless of what it does. First they complain that the University is sucking up to the Iranian regime, now they complain that the University is doing the bidding of the USA. They need to spend less time on their own private little sturm-und-drang projects and more time on their own research, which is what they’re being sponsored to do.

  • Samina

    @paul:

    1-it is not wrong if all participants speakers and audience) are informed of the source of funding and the aims of the project so can make a right decision whether to participate and face the consequences of their choice back in their country or not participate.

    2- I do not believe these young Iranian PhD students you are pointing out with such unfriendly tune are among the ones who compile Palletine. So look inside your own house first.

  • AnonMcAnon

    For christs sake it’s called ‘Palatinate’ – it’s at the top of the page!

  • Samina

    Ok. Sorry Anon McAnon :-)

  • David L

    This is a complete non-story. I fail to understand the issue at stake. The department applies for some grants under a US-funded democracy programme (which is presumably open to all), and receives funding for some meetings for NGO activists from UK and Iran with the respected media NGO, IWPR. It sounds like a good project, helping to develop mutual understanding etc. Lots of Iranian, UK and other NGOs and universities receive similar funding from the US and European governments, the European Commission, various foundations, etc. What exactly is the problem here? Would it be somehow better if it came from the UK government?

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  • thewiseone

    In response to the people saying ‘what’s the big deal with the US clandestinely funding seminars and talks on Iran’, this is part of the way the US brings about regime changes in countries, so that they adopt policies more favourable to them. Does anyone really think the seminars etc. will have been completely uninfluenced by money coming from the State Department? Obviously, the information presented and the way it was presented in these seminars and talks would be influenced so that it was more in line with the US agenda. The Durham academics involved who knew about the funding were also not likely to be objective in their opinions. Funding and bringing over students and government officials from Iran who are cherry picked due to their political views and trying to bolster them is a normative part of what intelligence and secret service agencies do. It’s no stretch of the imagination – false flag operations were used by British and US govts and agencies to bring down Mohammed Mosaddeq, the former democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, because he dared to nationalise his own country’s oil so that revenues from oil would benefit the poor and needy in Iran.

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  • Chris

    Carnegie Mellon uses government money to build weapons of war for US military. They built a tank called the Krusher, which is one of the most popular tanks nowadays. They also refuse financial aid to all foreign students, even though (if it weren’t for self selection when applying) their need for exceeds our own. Don’t bother donating to colleges. Even if you can allocate to a specific purpose, funds are fungible meaning that they will just use money that would have otherwise gone to that purpose on a less worthwhile cause like developing a new type of weapon. 

    There are much better things to donate to: charitynavigator.org

  • Chris

    WHY THE HELL IS OUR GOVERNMENT INVOLVED IN CHANGING POLICY IN IRAN?! Something tells me its not for humanitarian reasons. This is fucken disgusting.