Additional Reporting by Geoff Brumfiel
An Iranian semiconductor scientist said to be visiting the United States for health reasons has been arrested and charged with buying lab equipment in violation of export laws, the Associated Press (AP) reports.
Seyed Mojtaba Atarodi of Iran’s Sharif University of Technology in Tehran (SUT; pictured, right) appeared in court on 26 January for a closed hearing after being arrested on 7 December 2011. A spokesman for the US Attorney’s office in San Francisco told Nature the office had no comment, including even on what charges had been filed, and no listing appears under Atarodi’s name in US federal court records. Nature was not able to confirm the AP’s information about the charges, which came from an unnamed SUT source.
Atarodi’s publication record points to expertise in materials science and electrical engineering and shows past international collaborations with, among others, engineers at the University of California, Irvine, and the CNRS, France’s basic-research institute in Toulouse. He heads a large group researching microchip technology in the electrical-engineering department, according to SUT’s web site.
Baktash Behmanesh, a PhD student of Atarodi’s at SUT, told Nature that he was one of the last people to see Atarodi in Iran before his departure for the United States and that he understands the trip was for health reasons. “We are looking forward to his freedom, because we believe that he is completely innocent,” Behmanesh says.
Atarodi’s attorney did not return calls seeking comment, but the AP reports that the purpose of Atarodi’s US trip was to see a cardiologist and that Atarodi was granted bail partly for health reasons yesterday.
US–Iran scientific exchange has long been made difficult by the hostile relations between the two countries. Most recently, the tense situation was exacerbated by a series of mysterious killings of workers in Iran’s nuclear programme (see ‘Murders Unlikely to Slow Iran’s Nuclear Efforts‘). Fredun Hojabri, a retired chemist who worked at SUT before immigrating to the United States during the Iranian Revolution, and who now works to support equal opportunities for younger Iranian scientists in the United States, says that a major problem is the sometimes draconian interpretation of US sanctions against Iran, which are supposed to exempt scientific exchange but can in practice impede it. For example, a special permit is needed to purchase lab equipment that may have a dual use in the Iranian nuclear programme. “Anything can fall in this category,” Hojabri says. He says that although the occasional person may set out to violate the law, it is more common that legitimate visiting scientists pick up something in the United States for their lab in Iran without thinking it is illegal.
Image: SUT/Public Domain