Iranian computing center removes photos of Opteron system from Web site

Picture pointing to UAE as technology source disappears; U.S. concerns about that country's role as a transfer point remain

The Iranian computing research center that says it built a supercomputer with Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s 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 U.S. concerns about the UAE being a conduit for sending technology to Iran and other banned countries.

U.S. 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 appeared to have disabled the English-language link on its home page on Tuesday. However, the link was restored on Wednesday, with a note that the English versions of pages were still under construction as part of a redesign of the Web site. In addition, the older-style English-language pages can still be reached by entering their full URLs or going to an index page. (Editor's note: this paragraph was updated with new information at about 9:50 a.m. EST on Dec. 12.)

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 U.S. companies as a source of funding. For instance, AMD last month said it had received an investment of $622 million from a unit of Mubadala Development Co., 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 Inc. said that the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority planned to invest $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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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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