Iranian PhD students denied visas for security reasons
Norway’s security police have for years monitored students from Iran and other countries applying for admission to local universities in security-related fields such as nuclear science – and have increasingly rejected their visa applications. A new development has been the denial of visa renewals to some Iranian PhD students already busy on their theses – sparking protests by Iranian students and Norwegian universities.
Norway has hardened its attitude towards students from Iran, which is under sanctions over its nuclear programme, because of concerns that students might transfer sensitive nuclear and other technology back home.
But university leaders have expressed concern that they are losing out on attracting top students from abroad.
The denial of visas to scores of Iranian students and of places at universities has been reported by the BBC and in Sweden and other countries. Recently, there have been reports about PhD students, doing seemingly innocuous research, having to cease their studies and leave Norway within weeks.
Buskerud University College was recently in the news for denying a place to Mahtab Emami, who lives in Norway with her husband and children, on the grounds that its civil engineering programmes are closed to Iranians.
Last week Buskerud Rector Petter Aasen told Universitetsavisa: “We have received instructions from the ministry to make sure there is no transfer of sensitive technology. Subsequently we have asked all faculties to go through their programmes.
“What we have found is that we don’t have the capacity to control all civil engineering students who walk in and out of the labs. The conclusion is that we have closed all civil engineering programmes for Iranian citizens.”
The security argument
The background to the strengthening of visa controls over students from Iran, North Korea and other countries considered security risks can be found in a ‘security scenario for 2014’ drawn up by the Norwegian Police Security Service, known as PST.
The scenario states: “Norwegian universities and research institutions are targets for acquisition of goods, services and technologies that can be utilised to produce weapons of mass destruction.”
“People connected to Iran”, PST writes in the scenario, “will continue an active acquisition activity in order to produce weapons of mass destruction, probably with specific attention directed towards Norwegian higher education and research institutions”.
The PST has started to participate in public debate to a much greater extent than previously, even though many of its activities are considered highly secret.
PST has argued in op-ed articles and press releases that controls over Iranian students in particular are not strong enough, and that Iranian students could get hold of expert knowledge that could be used in the Iranian atomic programme, the student newspaper Universitas reported.
Jørn Presterudstuen, a section head at PST, said in an interview with Universitas: “We know that the father of the atomic bomb in Pakistan took his education in The Netherlands. Would we have been comfortable knowing that a future person in the atomic programme in Iran had taken his education in Norway?
“We therefore want Norwegian higher education institutions to filter potential students before they come to Norway.”
Norwegian universities have been lukewarm about the heightened screening of foreign students. It has been argued that they are having to shoulder too much responsibility – that in other countries, weeding out security risk students is primarily the task of security agencies.
In March the Ministry of Education wrote to universities explaining the legal background for sharpened visa control.
The letter stated that higher education institutions had an “independent duty to prevent illegal transfer of knowledge within areas that are relevant for the further spreading of weapons of mass destruction or for means of delivery for such weapons.
“The aim of this letter is to remind [institutions] about the regulations, so that the institutions themselves can identify sensitive studies, but also to clarify the regulations so that unnecessary hindrances are not created for students from Iran and North-Korea who want to study in fields that are not related to spreading of weapons of mass destruction.”
PST invited higher education institutions to a seminar in Oslo where senior advisor Hege Kristin Halvorsen listed subjects the PST thinks are relevant to an embargo.
Universitas reported these as: biology, building engineering, chemistry, electronics, information technology, material sciences, mathematics, mechatronics, metallurgy, physics, space technology, sciences related to oil and gas, and veterinarian sciences.
Junior Education Minister Bjørn Haugstad told Universitetsavisa that he could understand the frustration of the rector of the Norwegian University of Technology and Science, who had reacted badly to losing good students from abroad.
However, Haugstad said, “we cannot allow ourselves to be naïve. Iranians coming here with bad intentions will not flag their spying intentions. On the contrary, they have probably been selected to look most like ordinary students. We have to accept that PST might sit on information that they cannot share.”
In April Jan Fridthjof Bernt, a professor of law and former rector of the University of Bergen, told Universitas that he could not understand the interpretation of the rules of sanctions against Iran to include ordinary university activities.
“It is difficult to understand how you can exclude large groups of students from an education that must be open for everybody.” Bernt said that he could also not understand why the seminar that PST arranged for the higher education sector was not open to the press.
På Høyden, the internal newspaper of the University of Bergen, reported last week that Rector Dag Rune Olsen and his team had met with an Iranian researcher who was afraid of losing a doctoral position in biomedicine.
Olsen said Norwegian rectors would discuss the ‘spy filter’ instructions from the authorities, in order to work out better national coordination. There was a need to develop guidelines on how to define ‘sensitive studies, Olsen told På Høyden.
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