Nasser Kalantar Photo by Reyer Boxem

Knowledge embargo has a price

‘Never give away your basic rights’

Nasser Kalantar Photo by Reyer Boxem
Professor of experimental nuclear physics and nuclear energy Nasser Kalantar agrees that we need to protect our knowledge. But the current discussion on knowledge security is vulnerable to discrimination and stigmatisation, he cautions.
7 March om 11:02 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 March 2023
om 17:05 uur.
March 7 at 11:02 AM.
Last modified on March 7, 2023
at 17:05 PM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

7 March om 11:02 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 March 2023
om 17:05 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

March 7 at 11:02 AM.
Last modified on March 7, 2023
at 17:05 PM.
Avatar photo

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio »
Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

He remembers how happy he was, eleven years ago. After three court cases in three years, the Supreme Court issued a definitive judgement in the case of Nasser Kalantar and two other plaintiffs against the State of the Netherlands. The highest judicial body was unequivocal in its judgement: The Sanctions on Iran, which excluded Iranians from access to nuclear knowledge, was unconstitutional and invalid.

‘It was a big day’, says Kalantar. ‘I was like, wow, this is what it’s all about. The Supreme Court was saying that we had to keep using the Constitution as a benchmark. That we had to keep asking ourselves if we were doing the right thing. Every single day.’


Kalantar is professor of nuclear physics and nuclear energy at the UG and had been living in the Netherlands for years when the United Nations passed Resolution 1737 in 2009. This resolution called on UN member states to be ‘vigilant’ in teaching sensitive knowledge to Iranian citizens, for instance on nuclear science. 

We were automatically suspicious, and that’s discrimination

The Netherlands decided to exclude any and all Iranians from various university programmes on technology and physics. They were also no longer welcome at five nuclear physics locations, including the nuclear plant in Petten. 

Kalantar, who is unable to give up his Iranian nationality, hated this. Not just he, but thousands of other Iranians were suddenly excluded based on their nationality. ‘We were automatically suspicious. That’s discrimination.’


Fortunately, the Dutch courts agreed with him wholeheartedly. Even when the State appealed. Even when the case went before the Supreme Court. ‘The ruling says – and these are my words – that the government wasn’t allowed to appeal to the UN. If a UN resolution is at odds with the Dutch constitution and fundamental rights, the country is allowed to ignore it.’

Tomorrow, someone else might be the enemy

He’s been thinking a lot about the verdict from 2012, now that the debate on how to protect our knowledge from enemies has once again reared its head. There are new sanctions against Iran and North Korea, and ASML can no longer sell microchip machines to China. Universities suddenly have to inventory which departments are generating sensitive knowledge and new employees from countries such as China and Russia are regularly being screened to prevent spies from stealing our knowledge.

But, Kalantar warns, there is the risk of discrimination. We once again run the risk of excluding and stigmatising entire populations, treading upon citizens’ constitutional rights. ‘I’m not saying we shouldn’t protect our knowledge. I’m saying we need to think long and hard about how we do that.’

Nasser Kalantar: ‘I’m not saying we shouldn’t protect our knowledge. I’m saying we need to think long and hard about how we do that.’ Foto Reyer Boxem


He feels there’s a lack of cohesive policy and vision. We assume too easily that people from a certain country are ‘the enemy’. ‘But those things change. Tomorrow, someone else might be the enemy. Spies don’t have a nationality.’

Just a few years ago, no one batted an eyelid at the Russians. Partnerships with China were fiercely encouraged. The UG almost had a branch campus in the Chinese city of Yantai. ‘But who knows, perhaps we have to protect ourselves from Israel next’, says Kalantar. ‘Or even the US.’

What is the solution? 

Kalantar doesn’t even hesitate; he already asked and answered this question all those years ago. ‘It starts with determining what constitutes sensitive information’, he says. Universities are currently inventorying research that could also be used for military ends, so-called dual use, but this is all fairly random. ‘One group that’s on the list here, isn’t on the list in Delft, for instance.’ 


‘Again’, Kalantar says emphatically, ‘the fact that we’re protecting information is fine.’ But there is a lack of objectivity. Universities shouldn’t be in charge of determining what info is sensitive; they ask the faculties, and the faculties turn to research directors. ‘Something like this should be done on a national level, by a national committee of experts that includes the General and Military Intelligence and Security services. Perhaps it should even be done on an EU level.’

I publish everything I do

Next, you need to decide how to approach it. It’s an important question, because for years, universities argued in favour of open science. ‘My classroom is open, too’, says Kalantar, whose research group is not on the list, incidentally. ‘And I publish everything I do.’

But does that mean we have to start banning people from classes? How would we do that? And how do we decide who to ban? ‘Should we even be teaching classes on certain scientific topics if that knowledge is so sensitive? Maybe the Ministry of Defence should be doing that.’


The key, says Kalantar, is not to build a wall around the people who may or may not have bad intentions, for instance by not hiring them. Instead, we should shield the knowledge, and screen every single person that wants access. That includes Dutch people.

That’s the same solution he and his fellow plaintiffs came up with in 2009 and that the court agreed to in 2012. Today, everyone who wants to visit the nuclear plant in Petten has to submit a request and wait three weeks to hear if they’re allowed in.

Kalantar is worried about how easily people are pointing fingers at certain countries. After all, words hurt. ‘Two years ago, Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok said something insensitive: “We have an Iranian problem.” Our lawyer immediately sent him a letter to tell him that couldn’t say that.’ 

Blok quickly wrote a letter of apology to Kalantar and his people: he hadn’t meant to offend anyone. But he never publicly retracted the statement. That kind of stigmatising language can have severe consequences.

Spit on

‘The problem is that people start making their own choices’, says Kalantar. When Covid was blamed on ‘the Chinese’, people started spitting on them on the street. Whenever we have an issue with ‘Iranians’, their applications for a PhD spot might just end up in the trash. Not because people are malevolent, but because they want to do the right thing. ‘Discrimination is hard to prove, but from a collective standpoint, it’s happening.’

It’s just easier not to hire that Chinese guy

Kalantar doesn’t think people will start spitting on others at the university any time soon. But that doesn’t mean there’s no discrimination at the institute. It’s already happening when a research group leader who wants to hire someone is asked whether they’re sure the person is from a good university. Let’s take a look at the list! There’s an agency that can check it for you… ‘But that’s so much work. So when you’re wondering whether to hire that Chinese guy, it’s just easier to not do it.’

You have to wonder if it’s all worth it. Whether infringing on people’s constitutional rights actually achieves its goal. Kalantar has his doubts. ‘The laws and regulations have to be necessary, appropriate and effective, and proportional’, he argues. But the embargoes against North Korea haven’t helped. And according to reports in the media, Iran is close to having a working nuclear weapon. ‘We may have slowed down its development by five years or so. Was that worth ignoring basic human rights for?’

We should have a vision. ‘Protecting our values and constitutional rights takes time and effort’, says Kalantar. ‘It leads to stress and court cases. But we can never, ever forfeit them. That’s what it’s all about in the end.’