Faculty members at Sharif University of Technology (SUT) in Tehran, Iran, have protested the arrest by US authorities of electrical engineering professor Seyed Mojtaba Atarodi, who was visiting the US when he was detained on 7 December.
News of the arrest became public on 26 January when Atarodi attended a closed court hearing in California.
In a statement dated 11 January but provided to Nature on 30 January, members of the faculty council of SUT (pictured) suggest that Atarodi has been indicted for purchasing items in the US for his lab at SUT, which might violate a ban on US trade with Iran.
The statement reads as an impassioned plea for Iranian faculty traveling abroad to be treated like faculty from other countries, stressing the normality of picking up items for one’s lab such as books, test equipment or integrated circuits. The faculty say that most of the items Atarodi is accused of buying are not in the “dual use” category that could have application in Iran’s nuclear program and would require a special permit and that they are available on the open market in Iran anyway.
“We believe holding a distinguished 55 year old professor in custody is a historical mistake and not commensurate with the image that America strives to extend throughout the world as a bastion of free scientific exchange among schools and academic institutions, ” the statement says.
The US authorities will not say what law Atarodi is charged with violating or what items he bought. Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at the Congressional Research Service in Washington DC, says buying the items mentioned in the SUT statement, which include an oscilloscope and integrated circuits, without a license, would violate a 1995 US Executive Order banning trade and investment with Iran, but in a way that would usually warrant a civil penalty, and not rise to being a criminal matter. But the situation could be exacerbated if a person was accused of conspiring to undermine the trade ban, or conspiracy to export arms, or had been granted a visa for a different purpose, says Katzman.
Atarodi’s attorney, Matt Kohn, who is based in Santa Monica, California, says court rules prevent him from saying what Atarodi has been charged with or what the professor’s position is on the charges against him because the indictment has been sealed. He also is not at liberty to say why the sealing took place. However, he notes that he has past experience representing an Iranian businessman who was charged by a sealed indictment with violating the 1995 Executive Order and that sealing in such cases is not uncommon.
Scott Kemp, an expert on nuclear non-proliferation at Princeton University, says that the seriousness of the US case against Atarodi may depend on whether the government has evidence or a suspicion that the items allegedly bought were going to end up being used in the Iran nuclear program, rather than peacefully at SUT. Kemp adds that going back to the 1980s, a number of Sharif University professors have had connections to the Iranian nuclear program, not as a specific policy of the university but simply because it is the leading technical university making it natural that the Iranian government might go there for advice.
The SUT faculty statement appears to allege that Atarodi, who has had heart problems since 2010, suffered a stroke while in US detention. However, Kohn tells Nature that Atarodi did not suffer a stroke or any kind of health emergency in US custody, and that the US attorney prosecuting the case has been very attentive to his health needs.
Mohammad Sharifkhani, a professor in the electrical engineering department and a chair of the public relations office for SUT, says the faculty are very concerned about the case, “which is contrary to the widely known standards of free scientific exchange throughout the world.”