Iran using U.S. chip technology in rocket research

Chipmaker AMD says it will notify U.S. government of Iran's claims of Opteron use

An Iranian research institute claims it used Advance Micro Devices Inc. Opteron microprocessors to build a high computing performance system. The claim is but one more piece of evidence that the U.S. trade embargo on Iran has little impact on the country's importing of high-tech equipment.

The Aerospace Research Institute of Iran (ARI) has listed on its Web site specifications for a high performance computer using AMD's dual core chips. The Suse Linux-based system was launched with 32 cores which have since increased to 96 cores, according the ARI site. The page says the system is running at 192 GFLOPS, equal to one billion floating points per second, putting it on the low-end of the speed range for high performance systems.

Exactly when the Iranians started building this system is uncertain. The Web page listed the specifications is dated from December.

"It is more than troubling that an Iranian aerospace entity, affiliated with the government, and involved in sophisticated missile research and production, is using U.S. computer equipment for its development work," said Valerie Lincy, editor of Iran Watch, part of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, an organization that advocates for export controls and non-proliferation policies. Lincy discovered the information on the ARI site.

This Iranian research institute is involved in the design and production of sounding, or research, rockets, which are designed to perform scientific experiments. But the research described on the site includes work on rocket motors and separations systems or staging, said Lincy. "Such work is directly applicable to enhancing Iran's ballistic missile capability," she said.

In response to questions from Computerworld, an AMD spokesman said in a written statement that the company can't speculate how the processors could have made it to Iran.

"AMD has never authorized any sales or shipments of AMD products to Iran or any other embargoed country, either directly or indirectly," the company said in the statement. "We fully comply with all United States export control laws, and all authorized distributors of AMD products have contractually committed to AMD that they will do the same with respect to their sales and shipments of AMD products. Any shipment of AMD products to Iran by any authorized distributor of AMD would be a breach of the specific provisions of their contracts with AMD."

AMD said it plans to notify the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security, which manages export controls for the federal government, "of the information contained on this Web site."

This isn't the first Iranian research organization to release specifications for a high performance computer system. In 2007, the Iranian High Performance Computing Research Center said it had assembled a Linux-based supercomputer using 216 Opteron processing cores. That center said it was the fastest system in Iran to date.

The ARI had earlier said it has also used Intel chips to build other systems. The center had earlier posted photographs of the systems, which included workers assembling the system. The photographs have been removed from the site.

High technology from U.S. companies appears to be widely available in Iran. Indeed, it may be more of a question of what isn't available. Various Iranian vendors advertise servers, networking products and components from U.S. firms on their Web sites. If these Web sites are any indication, Iran could build high performance systems using parts made from any number of U.S. vendors, not just AMD, with little difficulty.

Mehdi Noorbaksh, an associate professor of international affairs at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, said that Iran mostly buys its technology on the black market. "That market provides Iran with what the authorities need for these projects," he said.

The technology can be coming from Dubai, Turkey and other possible routes, said Noobaksh. Europe doesn't have the same export restrictions as the U.S., so technology can also come from there as well as through China.

U.S. enforcement actions tend to focus on military goods and schemes by organized groups to sell to Iran. In April, for instance, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced the arrest of 11 people in connection to send U.S. military aircraft parts to Iran.

Richard Burke, trade counsel in White & Case LLP in Washington, said the U.S. has a "comprehensive trade and financial embargo against Iran" so exporting to that country, except in the case in some minor or humanitarian activities, is prohibited. "The general rule is nothing can be sold to Iran," he said.

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Patrick Thibodeau

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