WASHINGTON – The United States has arrested and charged an Iranian semiconductor scientist with violating U.S. export laws by buying high-tech U.S. lab equipment, a development likely to further worsen Iranian-U.S. tensions.
Prison records show the U.S. is holding Seyed Mojtaba Atarodi, 54, a microchip expert and assistant professor at Tehran's prestigious Sharif University of Technology, in a federal facility in Dublin, Calif., outside San Francisco. The Iranian interest section in the Pakistani embassy in Washington said it was aware of the arrest.
Atarodi arrived at a bond hearing in federal district court in San Francisco Thursday wearing a green jump suit and bowed to his attorney. Before the hearing began, the judge closed the courtroom except to attorneys and members of the family. According to friends, Atarodi was detained Dec. 7 after stepping off a plane in Los Angeles.
Dr. Fredun Hojabri, a former vice chancellor of Sharif University who now lives in the U.S., said he was aware of the case and noted that friction between the U.S. and Iran has long posed problems for Iranian researchers.
U.S. law enforcement officials have declined to discuss any aspect of Atarodi's case, and records indicate the charges have been sealed.
But a Sharif University spokesman said he has been charged with buying instruments from the United States. The university official spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the potential repercussions of the case.
The arrest comes as the U.S., Israel and their allies are using diplomacy, sanctions and intelligence efforts to try to cripple what they suspect is Iran's drive to lay the foundations of a nuclear weapons program.
Atarodi is listed as the author or coauthor of dozens of scientific papers dealing with microchip technology, though none appears to be explicitly related to military work. U.S. officials in the past have targeted suspected export control violators dealing in so-called dual-use technology, which can have both civilian and military applications.
The Sharif University spokesman said Atarodi was engaged only in civilian research. "The fact of the matter is that he was just a professor, and he was trying to buy some equipment for his lab, and the equipment was very, very simple, ridiculously simple stuff that anybody can buy," the spokesman said.
The arrest of an Iranian scientist in a U.S. embargo case is rare, with most cases focusing on low-level middlemen living in the U.S. recruited to act as fronts for purchasers in Iran. But Iranian researchers in recent years have become central figures in the struggle between Tehran and the West over the country's extensive nuclear programs, which the International Atomic Energy Agency says has included arms-related research.
At least four Iranian scientists have died under mysterious circumstances over about the past two years, and Israel is suspected of playing a role in the attacks.
In the most recent incident, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a chemist and official at Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, was killed by a car bomb Jan. 11, reportedly while on his way to a memorial service for a scientist slain a year earlier.
For years, Iran has insisted it is only interested in the peaceful uses of atomic energy and has resisted United Nation demands that it abandon its extensive uranium enrichment efforts. Enrichment technology can be used to make fuel for nuclear reactors or fissile material for bombs.
The U.S. and Israel, meanwhile, are believed to have recruited Iranian scientists as agents or encouraged them to defect.
A friend of Dr. Atarodi's, John Choma, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California, said he learned of the arrest from Atarodi's brother, who lives in the Los Angeles area. The brother did not respond to requests for an interview.
Hojabri cited an incident in 2006 when more than 50 Iranian scientists, executives and engineers headed for a forum on disaster management in Santa Clara, Calif., were detained and expelled after their arrival because their visas were revoked. The event was organized by a Sharif University alumni group.