Court Rebukes Dutch Policy on Iranian Scientists

AMSTERDAM—A court in The Hague has dealt a blow to the Dutch government's controversial attempts to keep sensitive nuclear technology out of the hands of Iran. Its policy to ban Iranian-born students and scientists from certain master's degrees and from nuclear research facilities in the Netherlands is overly broad and a violation of an international civil rights treaty, the court ruled today.

"We're elated. This is a big victory, not just for us, but for science as well," says Behnam Taebi, a Ph.D. student in philosophy of technology at the Delft University of Technology and one of the plaintiffs in the case. Taebi has both Dutch and Iranian citizenship, as do the two other plaintiffs, nuclear physics professor Nasser Kalantar of the University of Groningen and chemistry student Kawe Bitaraf of Delft. (The court dismissed a fourth party in the case, the Action Group Iranian Students.)

The Dutch ministries of science and foreign affairs enacted the new policy in 2008 as the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolution 1737, adopted in 2006, which calls on member states to prevent training or teaching Iranian nationals in ways that would help Iran obtain nuclear technology. The Netherlands are particularly sensitive to the issue because Abdul Qadeer Khan, who helped build Pakistan's nuclear bomb, secretly collected valuable information while working at URENCO, a Dutch uranium-enrichment plant, in the 1970s.

The Dutch policy bans Iranians from nine fields of study, including nuclear science and certain types of rocket technology, and from an experimental nuclear reactor at the Nuclear Research and Constultancy Group (NRG) in Petten (photo), URENCO, and three other facilities.

Iranian-born scientists say no other country has issued such a sweeping ban. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has joined their cause, calling the policy "indefensible" and harmful to the reputation of Dutch science. "The Netherlands must remain a country that welcomes science and scientific researchers," KNAW President Robbert Dijkgraaf wrote science minister Ronald Plasterk—a renowned molecular biologist and KNAW member himself—in a letter last year.

In its verdict, the court agreed that preventing Iran from obtaining certain types of technologies is legitimate, but said that there is "no objective and reasonable justification" for targeting all Iranians, and Iranians only. Doing so is a violation of article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a U.N. treaty that has been in force since 1976, the court says; to protect its nuclear secrets, the government should use other measures, such as individual screening.

A spokesperson for Plasterk said today that his ministry and the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs are still "studying" the verdict, and have yet to decide whether to appeal.

(Photo Credit: ECN)