Over the weekend, an Iranian scientist suspected of violating US export laws was held in prison for attempting to purchase advanced equipment from a lab in California.
The scientist, Seyed Mojtaba Atarodi, 54, is a microchip development expert and a senior professor at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. Atarodi was once already arrested on December 7, 2011 when he stepped off a plane in the Los Angeles International Airport.
While details of the bill of indictment are still confidential, it seems at first sight that this is a familiar process of the logistics branch of the Iranian ministry of defense, which routinely uses locals of Iranian descent - low level engineers undergoing studies overseas and straw companies in the field of electronics - to acquire essential components for the Iranian nuclear and missile programs.
In recent years, bills of indictment were served in the US against dozens of such dealers, including Majid Kakavand, an Iranian agent who was arrested in Paris after he purchased hundreds of components for the IEI, an electronic company of the Iranian ministry of defense. Among the purchased products was a spectro-reflectometer, a sophisticated measuring tool needed for testing long-range missiles.
In the most recent report, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) succeeded in exposing a plan for purchasing equipment, materials, and services that could be used to create a nuclear explosive device, even though the purchases can also have civilian applications.
Among the materials exposed were high-speed electronic switches for operating nuclear detonators, high-speed HD cameras (for analyzing tests), and equipment for detecting and measuring nuclear radiation. Components such as these constitute an indication for the possible development of nuclear weapons.
In this case, it is not a small fish but a senior engineer – a valued scientist who is the signatory to more than thirty technical articles in the analogical field and the design of integrated analogue circuits, as well as CAD tools in fields pertaining to micro-electronic engineering. Utilized in the computer and communication industries, these are also essential to the military industry for developing weapon and avionic systems, such as the missile and space program, and even components in nuclear warheads. It is quite possible that his arrest is tied to the information he holds in these fields.
At the start of 2011, he won Iran’s prestigious Khwarizmi international award along with twenty-three other scientists. He won the award for research carried out towards designing a microchip receiver for digital photos. The award was presented to him in the presence of the Iranian president, the minister of science, and Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, the Iranian minister of defense who is in command of Iran's defense industries.
The research he carried out could serve towards analyzing tests as well as creating smaller antennas needed for missile communication. A similar award was given to Professor Massoud Ali-Mahmoudi, a nuclear scientist assassinated in 2010 that was connected to theoretical research in the framework of the Iranian ministry of defense.
Professor Atarodi serves as a senior instructor at the Electronics Faculty of Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, and occasionally spends time in office number 208 on the first floor of the electronics department. The Sharif University took care to remove the professors’ picture; however, documentation was found after a thorough search in an international academic archive.
For many years, the Sharif University has been known as the central institute for human export of academics who serve Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, particularly those that are carried out in confidential tracks. The university’s research institutes, particularly those near Malek Ashtar University, which deal with physics, have until recently served to host the site of a confidential military research facility in the field of physics, named FEDAT.
At the head of the institute is Mohsan Fakhri-Zadeh, who deals with connecting all the confidential projects needed to develop a nuclear bomb. Among the university's graduates are Professor Mostafah Ahmadi-Roshan, a chemistry engineer, who was recently assassinated and who, according to reports, dealt with the development of a new generation of centrifuges installed in the uranium enrichment facility near Qom, as well as applications connected to the Iranian missile program.
Atarodi received his BA from the semi-military Amirkabir University (Tehran Polytechnic) in 1985, and received a second degree in electronic engineering from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1987, where he completed his doctorate in the field of planning integrated analogue circuits.
From 1993 to 1996, he worked with Linear Technology as a senior planning engineer. Linear Technology operates in Israel as well, and manufactures and markets integrated circuits for the industry and communication fields. The company also specializes in products for process measurement and control, military applications, and space systems.
Since then, in addition to his position in the Sharif University, Atarodi served as a consultant to various IC companies, and visits Europe and the US from time to time, where he has professional and academic contacts. It is possible that this is the reason that Iran decided to send him to attempt to achieve crucial technology, despite the risk of his exposure.