Microscope image of fluorescent human stem cells

Iranian stem-cell researcher Masoud Soleimani has been accused of evading export controls by the US government.Credit: Edgloris Marys/Alamy

Three Iranian biologists are facing trial in a US court over charges that they violated trade sanctions by attempting to export chemicals known as growth factors, which are commonly used in medical research.

The scientists have asked a federal district court judge in Atlanta, Georgia, to dismiss the criminal charges against them. They argue that the materials in question — eight vials of proteins that scientists use to help culture cells — are exempt from US controls on exports to Iran because they are used for medical purposes. But the government says that the researchers violated the law by attempting to “smuggle” the chemicals to Iran without permission from the US treasury department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

On 17 June, government prosecutors filed their response to the scientists’ motions to throw out the charges against them; the scientists have until 1 July to reply. The judge handling the case will then decide whether it will proceed to trial.

One of the defendants, Masoud Soleimani, a prominent stem-cell researcher at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, has spent eight months in an Atlanta jail. The others, former students of Soleimani’s who live in the United States, are free on bail.

Legal experts say that the case highlights the confusion surrounding the United States’ complex policies on Iran, which have undergone major changes twice since 2015. Many lawyers who specialize in US national-security issues are surprised that the government brought criminal charges against the Iranian researchers, rather than treating the matter as a regulatory issue and imposing a fine.

“I don’t see any evidence that there was criminal intent here,” says Clif Burns, a lawyer at Crowell & Moring in Washington DC who specializes in national-security law, including export controls and trade sanctions. He says that government prosecutors have not presented any evidence suggesting that the scientists attempted to hide the vials of growth hormone — for instance, by disguising them as another substance during transport.

Kevin Wolf, a lawyer at Akin Gump in Washington DC, says that violations of OFAC regulations are usually settled out of court and rarely proceed to trial by jury. In criminal cases involving export controls, he says, the onus is on the US government to prove that the defendants knowingly violated sanctions.

Twists and turns

According to court documents, Soleimani’s former student Mahboobe Ghaedi bought the growth factors on his behalf in early 2016. At the time, Ghaedi was a researcher in laboratory medicine at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. Now a principal scientist at the pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Ghaedi told Nature that she purchased the proteins in part because they are cheaper and more readily available in the United States than in Iran.

Ghaedi then sent the vials to another former student of Soleimani’s, Maryam Jazayeri, a biochemist in Louisville, Kentucky. Jazayeri had agreed to take the growth factors to Soleimani during her next trip to visit family in Iran. But when she tried to board her plane at the Atlanta airport in September 2016, US border agents searched her luggage and confiscated the growth factors.

Jazayeri had no further contact with US law-enforcement officials until February 2018, when she was again stopped by border agents at the Atlanta airport. They asked her about the vials they had confiscated in 2016, and Jazayeri said that she had agreed to transport the growth factors to Soleimani as a favour, without knowing that this was prohibited. According to court documents, she also told the agents that the proteins were to be used for “medical purposes such as stem cell research, cancer research, and transplantation”.

Eight months later, on 24 October 2018, a federal grand jury indicted all three scientists under seal — or behind closed doors — on two counts of conspiring to export goods to Iran without authorization. At the time, Soleimani was en route to the United States to take up a temporary research position at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Federal agents arrested him when he arrived in the United States on 25 October, and the government also revoked his visa. Ghaedi, a US permanent resident, and Jazayeri, a US citizen who was born in Iran, were arrested soon afterwards.

Defining issue

The case hinges in part on whether the growth factors qualify as medicine or medical devices under US laws regarding Iran, as the scientists have argued. That classification could enable export of the materials without a specific licence under certain circumstances, including on humanitarian grounds.

But in a document filed with the federal court on 17 June, government prosecutors reject such arguments. They say that the proteins do not qualify as medicine or medical devices, in part because the company that sold them says on its website that the proteins are intended only for research use, and not for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes.

The prosecutors also rejected Jazayeri’s argument that the proteins were legal to transport under a separate exemption for personal property.

A lawyer for Soleimani, Mehrnoush Yazdanyar, says her client thought that buying the proteins in the United States and taking them to Iran was legal. “If he’d known or thought or had reason to believe this was illegal, he would not have carried it out,” says Yazdanyar, who is based in Beverly Hills, California.

She also notes that Soleimani attempted to obtain the growth factors less than a year after then-president Barack Obama relaxed the United States’ long-standing trade sanctions against Iran. Yazdanyar says that the shift, prompted by Iran’s agreement to limit its nuclear programme, left many people confused about whether it was still illegal to transport personal property to Iran. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, reinstated strict sanctions against Iran last year.

“This case exemplifies what happens when two countries decide that they will not have relations, but there are thousands of people going back and forth,” Yazdanyar says.

Burns is mystified as to why the Trump administration did not simply fine the researchers for violating export rules, and speculates that politics played a part in government prosecutors’ decision to bring criminal charges. “They may see this as an easy case,” he says. “Typically, if you say ‘Iran’ enough in front of a jury, you'll get the verdict that you want.” Burns says that even if the scientists are acquitted of the criminal charges, they could still be fined by OFAC.

A spokesperson for the US Attorney's office in Atlanta, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment on whether political considerations influenced the government's decision to bring criminal charges against the scientists.

It is unclear how soon the federal court judge in Atlanta will rule on whether the case against Soleimani, Ghaedi and Jazayeri can proceed to trial. In the meantime, more than 2,500 Iranians, including numerous scholars, have signed an online petition in support of the researchers.