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An Iranian man walks past national flags and banners at Tehran University on June 14, 2021, ahead of presidential elections.ATTA KENARE/Getty Images

Canadian universities are being urged by a U.S. lobby group to reconsider their research ties to Iran, but some of them say doing so would hinder their independence and academic freedom.

The group, United Against Nuclear Iran, or UANI, has spent the past year highlighting collaborations between academics at a number of top Canadian schools and their counterparts at technology-focused universities in Iran.

Iranian universities have drawn Western scrutiny, and in some cases sanctions, for their work in nuclear research, satellites and drone technology, all of which can have military applications.

UANI is led by Mark Wallace, who was a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations during George W. Bush’s presidency. The group’s board includes Joe Lieberman, the former independent senator from Connecticut, and John Bolton, who served as national security adviser to Donald Trump. UANI’s stated aim is to make the case that Iran poses a threat to peace, stability and human rights, and to “caution and counsel” Iran’s potential partners about those dangers.

The research collaborations between Canadian and Iranian researchers that have drawn UANI’s attention published their results mainly between 2020 and 2022. The projects are not directly related to nuclear or military research, and don’t appear to violate sanctions, UANI said. Nevertheless, the group is trying to persuade universities to rethink these ties.

The UANI campaign highlights the extent to which universities are increasingly sites of national security concern and debate.

Canadian universities are reviewing their links to China, after years of warnings from Canada’s security services. This month, the University of Waterloo announced it was ending its research partnership with Chinese technology giant Huawei, and several other major research centres have also distanced themselves from the company.

New national security guidelines for research partnerships released by the Canadian government earlier this year do not target specific countries. Instead they lay out areas of research that are considered higher risk, such as rocket and space technology, nuclear technology, weapons, artificial intelligence and robotics, among others.

A government official said Canada is developing a list of foreign universities considered higher risk, and intends to use this list to provide further guidance on evaluating national security concerns in research partnerships. The Globe and Mail is not naming the official because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The list is being developed in consultation with Canada’s security agencies, and research guidelines based on it will be “country agnostic,” the official said.

Canada and Iran have not had formal diplomatic relations since 2012.

UANI’s lobbying campaign has focused mainly on identifying journal articles and conference papers produced by academics at Canadian universities in collaboration with Iranian scholars, in particular those at Sharif University of Technology, Malek Ashtar University and Iran University of Science and Technology. The work the group has highlighted includes research on topics such as optimizing the timing of air traffic control, and collision avoidance calculations for satellites.

The Globe tried to contact five researchers at Canadian universities who had published work with Iranian counterparts, but none replied to requests for interviews.

UANI wrote to at least eight universities about such partnerships: the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto, McGill, Concordia, the University of Manitoba, the University of British Columbia, Western University and the University of Alberta.

The letters draw attention to what UANI characterizes as the troubling aspects of the Iranian institutions involved. For example, in a letter to University of Toronto president Meric Gertler, UANI pointed out that Sharif University of Technology’s engineering department is sanctioned by the government of Canada.

Most of the Canadian universities said in letters responding to UANI that they have no formal relationships or exchange programs with the Iranian schools. Some also emphasized that academic freedom is a core principle for them.

As University of Manitoba president Michael Benarroch put it in one reply, a journal article produced by one of the school’s academics in partnership with an Iranian scholar appeared to be “a casual collaboration between two faculty members.”

In a follow-up, vice-president Mario Pinto wrote that the University of Manitoba sees the value of open research, aims to avoid bias and unfair targeting and does not have a list of restricted foreign universities.

UBC vice-principal Philip Barker wrote that scholars are expected to pursue their research free from political coercion or interference.

“Academic freedom should only be limited by the boundaries of the law. This is a crucial principle that allows for the pursuit of knowledge and the free exchange of ideas,” he wrote.

Janice Stein, a political science professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, said efforts to press universities to cut ties with particular countries are misguided. Concerns about espionage and intellectual property theft must be heeded, she said, but universities have an obligation to pursue research and knowledge.

“I really object to these blanket calls to cut ties, cut research partnerships, which in effect will only damage the universities and the countries that do this,” Prof. Stein said.

For the universities in Iran, connections with institutions abroad are perceived as valuable. Isfahan University of Technology’s website prominently features a list of its international partners, among them Canada’s University of Sherbrooke and Lethbridge College.

Isabelle Huard, a spokesperson for Sherbrooke, said the partnership was meant to facilitate a co-tutoring arrangement “on a topic where there is no safety issue.” The agreement has expired, the university said.

Lethbridge College declined to comment, citing rules governing public institutions during the Alberta election period.

Chad Gaffield, chief executive officer of U15, a group of research-intensive Canadian universities, said universities have helped to develop principles and guidelines for managing research security with the federal government. He said the listing of specific entities is the responsibility of Canada’s national security agencies.

Daniel Roth, UANI’s research director, said Canada should tighten its restrictions on research collaborations.

“Iran definitely falls under a national security risk, just in the same way that China does,” Mr. Roth said.