The Sunday Times - The Foreign Office has cleared dozens of Iranians to enter British universities to study advanced nuclear physics and other subjects with the potential to be applied to weapons of mass destruction.

The Sunday Times

Jack Grimston

THE Foreign Office has cleared dozens of Iranians to enter British universities to study advanced nuclear physics and other subjects with the potential to be applied to weapons of mass destruction.

In the past nine months about 60 Iranians have been admitted to study postgraduate courses deemed “proliferation-sensitive” by the security services. The disciplines range from nuclear physics to some areas of electrical and chemical engineering and microbiology.

Additionally, figures obtained by David Willetts, the shadow secretary for innovation, universities and skills, show that in 2005-06, 30 Iranians were doing postgraduate degrees in subjects covering nuclear physics and nuclear engineering.

The flow of Iranian scientists to Britain for training has caused alarm as the nuclear standoff between Iran and the West becomes increasingly tense. When confronted with the figures this weekend, the Foreign Office admitted that it was reviewing the vetting for sensitive areas of study and planned to announce an overhaul within the next few weeks to make procedures more rigorous.

Willetts said: “Given that we need to have tougher sanctions against Iran, it does seem extraordinary that the government is not yet stopping Iranians coming here to study nuclear physics. There is legitimate concern about what some students have been studying.”

Last week America intensified its economic sanctions against Tehran because of the refusal of President Mahmoud Ahmadine-jad to comply with international demands to open the country’s nuclear programme to inspection. Iran insists its uranium enrichment is for peaceful purposes.

In the Commons last week Gordon Brown indicated that tougher sanctions by Britain were a possibility. European Union leaders are due to meet within two weeks to discuss whether to strengthen sanctions against Iran.

Britain has previously been a destination of choice for scientists working for hostile governments. Rihab Taha, an Iraqi microbiologist, who studied at the University of East Anglia from 1980-84, later became a key figure in the development of Saddam’s biological weapons programme, earning her the nickname Dr Germ.

Subject areas covered by the government’s vetting overhaul include some types of metallurgy, molecular biology, chemistry and nuclear science.

Currently, vetting is done only when a university voluntarily informs the government that a candidate from outside the EU has been offered a place to study a sensitive subject.

This creates a potential loophole. Under the new online system overseen by the security services, universities will be obliged to inform the government if any nonEuropean intends to take a course in such subjects. They will also be required to give details about what is included in the course.

Before they can even begin a visa application, students will then be security vetted.

Academic background and country of origin will be checked as well as who is paying for the student’s course – to discover, for example, whether they are being sponsored by an unfriendly government such as Iran’s.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are rigorously checking people at the moment and we are planning an even more rigorous system.”

The government has not released full details of the universities being attended by the current Iranian students, whose sponsors are also not known. But in the past Iranians have studied nuclear-related subjects at institutions including Birming-ham, Imperial College London and Queen Mary, University of London.