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Durham University defends accepting funds from Iran

By Simon Cox
BBC Radio 4's The Report

image captionDurham University has robustly defended taking funds from Iran and the US state department.

As universities across the UK face tough questions about overseas donations, Durham University has caused a stir for accepting funding from both Iran and the US.

In the cramped basement office of the Durham student newspaper, the Palatinate, there is a wall of fame of big front page stories. Pride of place is one from February this year about a £200,000 ($320,000) grant Durham University received from the US state department for a series of Iranian seminars.

A cable from the US embassy in London, published by Wikileaks, said it was impressed by the "political cover" among contacts within Iran that Durham was apparently able to generate and described a member of the Iranian studies department at Durham as "a key Embassy London contact".

"It was a massive story for us", Palatinate's editor Jack Battersby says. "Our website usually attracts a few hundred hits a day. This one crashed. It received 250,000 hits."

The story was of particular interest to the small group of Iranian post-graduate students at Durham.

PhD student Afshin Shahi is worried what effect the leaked cable and US links could have on his fellow Iranian students: "Most of the students didn't even know about this project", he says, "but students are concerned to go back home because they fear being questioned by the authorities.

"They think maybe the authorities in Iran will be more suspicious of students who are coming out of Durham University."

The state department told us they had given the grants to Durham to provide what they called "a forum for an open exchange of ideas with the Iranian people". Durham University says it was a competitive grant which had been given ethical approval.

Pro Vice Chancellor Professor Robin Coningham said the importance of the cable had been overstated: "It's one junior official sending a note to another, probably trying to convince them they've done their job. We can't second-guess what is going on in people's minds."

'Symbolic message'

This is not the first time Durham has been criticised for its foreign grants and donations. In 2010 the university held a seminar which had been funded by a £5000 donation from the Iranian government.

It was also addressed by the Iranian embassy's cultural attache, who has been described as a hardline supporter of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The seminar took place on the same day as two anti-government protectors were executed in Iran and weeks after a Durham post-graduate student, Ehshad Abdo-Tabrizi, had been arrested in Tehran for criticising the regime. He was later jailed for seven years.

His friend Afshin Shahi said the seminar sent out a symbolic message: "Despite the violations of human rights in Iran, despite the imprisonment of one of our own students, Durham University still put itself in a position to go ahead with that level of collaboration with a regime that was responsible for human rights violations."

Durham says it did not find out about the executions and the arrest of one of its students until after the seminar and that 12 research papers from it will be published soon.

So would Durham take money from Iran again? Prof Coningham is not ruling it out: "It would depend. If one starts to designate which cultural areas are suitable and which are not suitable - I believe it is very dangerous."

Durham certainly is not the only university to have taken money from Middle East and Gulf countries.

Our research found that over £50m pounds has been donated mainly from Gulf nations to UK universities in the last five years.

Christopher Davidson, a reader in Middle East politics at Durham university, says these funds can influence academia in subtle ways: "Many students and academics are unwilling to criticise the donor country even if nothing is said or written in the agreement.

"Senior academics understandably hope for more funding and junior academics won't want to displease their masters," he adds.

The Report was broadcast in full on Thursday 31 March at 2000 BST on BBC Radio 4. You can listen again via the iPlayer or download the podcast.

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