According to this article in the San Diego Union Tribune, Mohamad Nazemzadeh, who was a Research Fellow in the Neurology Department of the University of Michigan at the time of his arrest, is being prosecuted for sending a medical device to Iran. At issue is a coil for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. The coil is the assembly of wires that generates the necessary radio signals when electricity flows through them to permit imaging the part of the body within the coil. Mr. Nazemzadeh is currently a researcher at the Henry Ford hospital in Detroit and his area of specialty is, not surprisingly, magnetic resonance imaging.

A part for an MRI machine would, under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, be eligible for an export license notwithstanding the embargo on Iran. Nazemzadeh’s failure to obtain a license would, of course, be a violation of the embargo. Even assuming that it was a criminal violation in his case, one has to wonder why prosecutorial resources are being consumed to prosecute a researcher for trying to send life-saving medical equipment to Iran. Aren’t there dangerous people out there with guns and bombs who might warrant the attention instead?

An affidavit in support of a search warrant for Nazemzadeh’s mobile phone provides more detail on the case than the Union-Tribune article and casts some doubt on whether Nazemzadeh actually had the criminal intent necessary to support a criminal prosecution for the attempted export of the MRI part. According to the affidavit, Nazemzadeh was negotiating with the undercover federal agent (who had been tipped off by the used medical device company that Nazemzadeh had contacted) to ship the MRI coil to Iran through a company in the Netherlands. As is often the case, it is not uncommon for people to believe (incorrectly) that if it is legal to ship an item to a particular country, no laws are broken if the item is then re-exported to a prohibited destination. Here, according to the affidavit, Mr. Nazemzadeh continued to say to the undercover agent that he believed the transaction was legal and says this is true because the export from the United States is to the Netherlands, not Iran.

Just tell that, you sold that item to some company in the Netherlands, and you have the request so you’re, you issued pro forma form for them and they sent money from the bank account to you, everything is legal between you[r] two companies …. [T]here’s nothing to do with Iran. You actually have sold that coil to one company in Netherland [sic], ok?

Granted that isn’t a true statement of the law, but a good faith legal mistake is not a criminal act. Instead, this is precisely the sort of case that ought to be handled as an administrative matter by OFAC. Such a proceeding could result in the imposition of substantial civil penalties on Mr. Nazemzadeh notwithstanding his mistaken belief that the transaction did not violate U.S. law.