'They Were Like Us'

When Computerworlds Patrick Thibodeau broke the story on Dec. 6 about an Iranian research centers success in acquiring enough AMD Opteron processors to build a supercomputer, we knew that a spotlight was being shined where a lot of people would prefer that there be darkness.

That the federal anti­terrorism trade sanctions imposed against Iran can easily be circumvented is hardly shocking. But the fact that the circumvention has yielded a supercomputer with 216 Opteron processing cores is extraordinary, and it has brought some unwanted attention to AMDs sales channel and to the United Arab Emirates as a source of illicit shipments to Iran.

I learned about Irans interest in the Opteron more than two years ago, when a column I wrote in May 2005 about the momentum building around the AMD processor was translated into Farsi and published in PC World Iran, an IDG sister publication. The editors at PC World Iran must have had reason to believe that information on the Opteron was in demand.

Where there is demand, there is resourcefulness, so it was to be expected that the Opteron would find its way into Iran by one means or another. In this case, Thibodeaus investigation uncovered a trail that led to an authorized AMD distributor in the UAE state of Dubai. Computerworld enhanced photos from an image gallery on the Web site of the research center at Tehrans Amirkabir University of Technology, which built the supercomputer. The photos indicated that the research center was working with technology it had received from Dubai-based distributor Thacker FZE.

Its clear that Thibo­deaus article got the attention of the Iranians. The photo gallery was subsequently removed from the research centers Web site.

The story was probably equally unwelcome to AMD, which can expect to face some tough questions about how some of its best technology fell into Iranian hands. The company issued a statement stressing that it has never authorized any shipments of AMD products to Iran or any other embargoed country, either directly or indirectly. Still, federal authorities are likely to look more closely into AMDs dealings in the UAE, which include a recent $622 million investment in the company by a firm in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi.

AMDs shareholders are likely to want some answers as well.

As someone who has been acquiring AMD stock this year, I have been watching the UAE connection very closely, one reader wrote in response to my blog item on the subject. The acquisition of Opteron processors, and their use in constructing a supercomputer by Iran, gives me pause regarding my ownership in this company. ... Maybe Ill start tracking Intel instead.

While the questions need to be asked and answered, we cant allow ourselves to lose sight of a point that was articulated especially well last week by a reader who e-mails me occasionally. The reader recounted a conversation hed had with an acquaintance, a division president in a large U.S. aerospace company.

He was telling me about a deal he tried to cut in the Soviet Union in the 70s yeah, a deal to sell airplane parts to the Russians in the middle of the Cold War, the reader wrote. We were talking about how the Russian aerospace guys really wanted to work with [the U.S. aerospace company]: They were like us. Above all, they were here to build and fly. Being good communists came in second place.

The vast majority of Iranian technology guys are like us, too. If our government engaged in activity that resulted in trade sanctions being imposed against us, wed work as hard as they do to overcome those obstacles. There are good people in Iran who are trying to use technology to improve peoples lives, and theyre doing it under extremely difficult circumstances. Forgetting that will only perpetuate the darkness.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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