WASHINGTON – For one 55-year-old professor, what started out as an overseas trip to the doctor has become part of the shadowy U.S. struggle with Iran.
The arrest in Los Angeles in December of Seyed Mojtaba Atarodi, a U.S.-educated electrical engineer who teaches at a leading Iranian university, comes as the U.S. uses export controls to try to restrict Iran's acquisition of U.S. technology, including for its military and nuclear programs.
But the Atarodi case bears another hallmark of the long-running U.S.-Iran conflict: It's cloaked in secrecy.
U.S. officials won't discuss the case or confirm that Atarodi has been charged. He has appeared in federal district court in San Francisco at least twice, but both proceedings were closed. The indictment against the Iranian microchip expert, who holds a U.S. green card granting permanent residency status, remains sealed nearly three months after his arrest at Los Angeles International Airport as he arrived from Iran.
Both governments have "a political stake in the outcome," Atarodi's lawyer, Matthew David Kohn, said. He added that he was not at liberty to discuss the case further.
Atarodi's colleagues at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran say the engineer has been charged with violating the long-standing U.S. trade embargo on Iran by purchasing what they claim was routine lab equipment from the U.S. It's not clear how much or what kind of equipment that included.
In an open letter, the faculty council said Atarodi's academic freedom was being violated. "In what way has he hurt the interests of America?" they said.
It's not clear how Atarodi purchased the equipment. The U.S. is engaged in a global crackdown on front companies and middlemen who acquire U.S. technology and materials despite a trade embargo, export controls and international sanctions.
Perhaps because of the secrecy, the case has drawn relatively little attention in the U.S. But Iranian officials have publicly denounced the arrest, linking it to the killings of nuclear scientists in Iran, which the Islamic republic blames on Israel.
"Such measures are in line with the inhuman policy of assassinating Iranian scientists and reveal the deceptive nature of Washington's allegations against the Iranian nation," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said on Jan. 29, according to Iran's Press TV.
Atarodi arrived in Los Angeles from Iran planning to consult with his brother's cardiologist about what he described as a serious heart condition, supporters say. He was promptly arrested and locked up for almost two months.
Now, Atarodi said in an email interview, he spends most of his time confined to his brother's Los Angeles-area home awaiting trial. A court official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said Atarodi was released after posting $460,000 bond and has been ordered to wear a tracking device.
Atarodi said he worries about his wife, five children and extended family. "My wife struggles with her own heart problems and diabetics and my ill mother is dependent on me for financial support," he said in the email exchange, which was conducted with Kohn serving as intermediary.
The microchip researcher said he specializes in the design of integrated circuits used for communications, biomedical applications and consumer electronics. "My academic and research activity ... has no association whatever with non-consumer and government uses," he wrote.
Professor John Choma of the University of Southern California, who has known Atarodi since he was a graduate student there in the 1990s, said Atarodi has designed high-performance electronic filters that can be used in a variety of communications devices to screen out unwanted frequencies.
"It's possible (it could be used) for a military application," Choma said. "It could be used in a (missile) guidance system, I suppose. But I'm not aware it's ever been used in that way." Overall, Choma said he would be surprised if Atarodi was engaged in clandestine work.
A 2006 academic paper co-authored by Atarodi lists him as working for the Microelectronic Research and Development Center of Iran, known as MERDCI.
MERDCI was an arm of the Industrial Development and Renovation Organization of Iran, which was sanctioned in July 2010 by the European Union for alleged involvement in research and development related to Iran's nuclear and missile programs, and the "procurement (of) advanced manufacturing technology in order to support them."
The Obama administration repeatedly has said it believes Iran is assembling everything it would need to one day manufacture nuclear weapons, although there is no evidence it has made the decision to start building a bomb. Iran insists it is interested only in the peaceful uses of the atom.
Atarodi said he was "fully disconnected" from MERDCI by 2010, the date the sanctions were adopted.
"As the name shows, MERDCI was involved in the research and development of integrated circuits," he wrote. "It was also involved in projects for the automobile industry (e.g., hands-free mobile system for cars.)"
He said he worked only on civilian projects at the center, "but, unfortunately, none of them has been finished."
MERDCI appears to have been disbanded a few years ago.