In a letter addressed to over 30 Australian universities, the country’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong urged a temporary halt to collaborative efforts with Iranian institutions. The move sought to address the growing human rights violations in Iran.

In April 2023, the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iranian custody sparked widespread protests against the Iranian government’s strict dress codes for women. The Iranian government responded with a crackdown that led to numerous deaths and arrests among the protestors.

However, the crackdown in Iran continued, resulting in a significant number of Iranians either dead or imprisoned.

UK-based The Guardian uncovered more than 20 published papers indicating ongoing collaboration between Australian universities and Iranian researchers following Wong’s letter. These collaborations range from low-threat areas like cancer research and renewable energy to critical technologies such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology – areas considered sensitive to national interests.

The Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security had previously expressed concerns in a 2022 report, urging universities to exercise greater caution in international research partnerships, particularly in critical technologies.

Daniel Roth from United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) suggested that Iranian universities lack the same academic independence principles as understood elsewhere. He claimed that Iranian academics are ultimately directed by the regime and military in specific research areas, raising concerns about the potential misuse of shared research.

Rana Dadpour, a researcher at James Cook University who taught at an Iranian university, confirmed that the institution is closely intertwined with the state. Dadpour faced harassment from security units at her Iranian university after becoming politically active.

Daniel Roth emphasised the need for caution in collaborations, particularly in sensitive areas. Toby Walsh, Chief Scientist at UNSW’s AI Institute, pointed out the moral issue of inadvertently aiding regimes that pose a national security risk. Walsh sees universities as akin to monasteries, emphasising the importance of clear guidelines for academics to explore ethical research collaborations.