DURHAM University has defended its independence, after a leaked secret cable suggested an academic sought more than £250,000 in US Government funding to develop contacts in Iran.

According to a diplomatic cable from April 2008, released through the controversial Wikileaks website, a Durham University academic submitted several proposals to the US State Department seeking a total of $439,750 – about £273,000.

The secret message states that six applications for funding were submitted to the US Embassy’s “Iran Watcher”

from “Iranian contacts in the UK”, including a named Durham figure.

The funding was to be used to set up workshops and strengthen links with organisations and individuals inside Iran, including women’s groups, journalists, academics and clerics.

A comment apparently added by an official at the US Embassy in London refers to Durham University’s “demonstrated access to academic and civil institutions”

and the academic’s “apparently successful creation of political cover”.

One workshop would be held “under the auspices of Durham University’s School of Governmental Affairs”, the cable says.

Elsewhere, there is discussion of ideas proposed by the academic, including “for the convening in Durham of a number of Iranian local officials...

to discuss comparative government and to engage in dialogue with US counterparts and US and UK experts”.

Such an event “might offer US and USG (US Government) observers a useful look inside Iranian politics at a grassroots level”, an added comment says.

In a statement, Carolyn Fowler, Durham University registrar, said the university had a process to ensure it remained academically independent.

She said: “The university has been made aware that a confidential document which details academic funding applications made by the university, or by individuals acting on the university’s behalf, has been leaked on the internet.

“Durham University has established processes for the management of academic income and receives funding from a broad range of research and education partners, whilst remaining true to the principles of independent academic discovery.”

Durham University has a Centre for Iranian Studies which seeks to develop links between universities in the UK and Iran.

Earlier this year, Durham University PhD student Ehsan Abdoh-Tabrizi was reportedly sentenced to seven years in an Iranian jail for “insulting the leader”, taking part in protests and “having links with foreign elements”.