x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Iranian spy fears led MSU branch to shun investor

Local branch of university ended its undergraduate programmes after turning away an investment it feared could be a cover for Iranian spies.

DUBAI //A local branch of Michigan State University (MSU) ended its undergraduate programmes after turning away an investment it feared could be a cover for Iranian spies.

In late 2009, Lou Anna Simon, the president of MSU, approached the CIA to ask if a Dubai company offering funding in return for student placement was a front for Iran, according to a Bloomberg News report.

The CIA's answer was inconclusive but the university chose to pull the plug, reportedly losing US$3.7 million (Dh13.5m) in the process.

A spokesman for MSU declined to comment and referred questions to the FBI, which also declined.

But a press release on the FBI website said 19 university presidents and chancellors were brought together in 2005 to form the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board.

The group meets regularly to "discuss national security matters that intersect with higher education".

MSU is not a known member of the advisory board and it is unclear whether all foreign students and investors are screened at a federal level.

Pete Earley, the author of Comrade J, the biography of Russian spy Sergei Tretyakov, is an investigative journalist who has followed developments in espionage since 1986.

Earley described the decision by MSU to pull the plug on the investor without solid evidence as "surprising" but understandable.

"These days, we all have to be more mindful of where the money is coming from," he said. "In recent years, academia has become a much easier target but they've always been a fabulous target because, by their very nature, professors like to share information and talk."

Tretyakov used his position as a student at Colombia University in New York to gain access to a document at the Library of Congress, which contained a full list of all US army bases, Early said.

"That meant the Russians knew where every one was and how long the landing strips were," he said.

"There's a certain naivety about flirting with danger. There's a misconception that you can be Tony Soprano's best friend."

newsdesk@thenational.ae