Iranian computing center pulls Opteron photos from Web site

US concerned UAE is providing technology to Iran and other banned countries

The Iranian computing research center that says it built a supercomputer with Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processors has removed from its Web site photographs showing a possible link to the United Arab Emirates as a source of the chips. But something that can't be removed so easily are longstanding US concerns about the UAE being a conduit for sending technology to Iran and other banned countries.

US antiterrorism trade restrictions bar the sale of technology developed here to Iran. But as Computerworld reported last week, the Iranian High Performance Computing Research Center (IHPCRC) claims on its Web site that it has assembled a clustered system with 216 Opteron processing cores for use in weather forecasting and meteorological research. On another part of its site, the Tehran-based IHPCRC had posted a photo gallery that included snapshots of what appeared to be staff members working on the servers and racks of the supercomputer.

However, the entire photo gallery now appears to have been taken down from the Web site. Among the shots was a photograph showing a man working on the cluster, with a stack of boxes behind him that included the word "Thacker" and the initials "U.A.E." handwritten on their sides. Thacker FZE is an authorized distributor of AMD products that is based in the UAE and is also listed under the name Sky Electronics on AMD's Web site.

In addition to removing the photo gallery, the IHPCHC appears to have disabled the English-language link on its home page, although the English versions of pages such as the announcement of the Opteron-based system's construction can still be reached by entering their full URLs.

AMD, in response to a Computerworld query about the photo showing the boxes with the "Thacker" name on them, issued a statement last Thursday saying that it has never authorized any shipments to Iran, either directly or indirectly. A spokesman for Thacker and Sky Electronics said they have no customers in Iran and noted that products can be imported into that country by many different means, including individual Iranians buying "one or two pieces" of technology in locations such as the UAE and then bringing them across the border.

The UAE is becoming more important to US companies as a source of funding. For instance, AMD last month said it had received an investment of US$622 million from a unit of Mubadala Development, an investment firm that is based in the UAE's capital of Abu Dhabi and is owned by the Abu Dhabi government. Also last month, Citigroup said that the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority planned to invest US$7.5 billion in the financial services firm through the purchase of "equity units" that will be converted into shares of common stock.

But while organizations in the UAE are increasing their investments in this country, US officials are eying the UAE for its possible involvement in diverting technology to countries that are under trade sanctions.

For instance, in testimony about Iran before a US Senate committee last March, Mark Foulon, acting undersecretary for industry and security at the Department of Commerce, said that the agency is considering adding a new category called "Country Group C" to the federal government's set of export administration regulations. The added category would set new controls and screening requirements for so-called "diversion countries," according to Foulon's prepared testimony.

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Foulon didn't name any of the countries that would be included on the new list. But prior to explaining the Country Group C concept to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, he cited a case in which a company in the UAE was believed to "have acquired US-origin components capable of being used to construct improvised explosive devices or other devices that have been, and may continue to be, used against coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan."

The Commerce Department sought comments on the proposed rule last spring. Among the organizations writing in opposition (download PDF) was the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which said that it had imported a total of nearly US$12 billion worth of goods from the U.S. If the UAE "is designated as a 'diversion country' and strict licensing requirements are put on US goods, such goods will likely be sourced from alternative countries other than the US," the chamber warned.

But the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control wrote in support of the proposed designation and provided documentation supporting its contention that diversions of goods through the UAE "continue to the present day."

The IHPCRC is located at Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran. The center said on its Web site that the Opteron-based system runs Linux and is capable of performing 860 billion floating-point operations per second, or gigaflops -- a relatively slow throughput rate for a supercomputer.

Attempts to reach officials at the IHPCRC for comment on the Opteron-based system and the apparent UAE connection have been unsuccessful. But Bahman Javadi, a researcher at the Iranian facility, responded via e-mail today to earlier, unrelated questions about supercomputing in Iran and the IHPCRC's goals.

"Our main object is providing an environment to develop scientific ideas of high-performance computing," Javadi wrote. "Although our interest is focused on some research topics of HPC systems, we may also assemble some cluster systems for civil applications outside the university."

Javadi's last statement would fit with the IHPCRC's stated uses of the Opteron-based system, and with its description of the purged photos that appeared to depict the process of assembling the supercomputer. The research center said as part of the now-removed photo gallery that the staffers shown in those photos were working on the "cluster of IRIMO," an acronym for a meteorological organization in Iran.

In response to a question about whether the IHPCRC should have a system included on the Top500 list of the most powerful supercomputers worldwide, Javadi wrote: "We have never been in [the] Top500 list, and at the moment we have no plan in this regard."