Defector or CIA victim? Iranian’s saga takes a U-turn toward bizarre
WASHINGTON — An Iranian nuclear scientist who U.S. officials say defected to the United States last year, provided information about Iran’s nuclear weapons program and then developed second thoughts, walked into the Iranian Interests Section of the Pakistani Embassy here Monday night and declared that he wanted a ticket back to Tehran.
The bizarre episode was the latest in a tale that has featured a mysterious disappearance from a hotel room in Saudi Arabia, rumors of a trove of new intelligence about Iran’s nuclear facilities and a series of contradictory YouTube videos. It immediately set off a renewed U.S.Iran propaganda war.
Iranian officials have said for months that the 32-year-old scientist, Shahram Amiri, was kidnapped in spring 2009, taken to the U.S., imprisoned and tortured. Iranian media quoted Amiri on Tuesday as saying that the United States had wanted to quietly return him to Iran and “cover up the kidnapping.”
U.S. intelligence officials scoffed at that account. Secretary of State
Continued from A Hillary Clinton, in the first official acknowledgment of Amiri’s presence in the United States, said Tuesday that he had arrived in America “of his own free will” and could leave whenever he wished.
But the latest chapter in the saga of Amiri, a radiation detection specialist, was an apparent embarrassment to U.S. intelligence agencies and offered a glimpse of what is informally called the “brain drain” program to lure scientists and engineers out of Iran.
Amiri was described as an important confirming source about the Iranian nuclear program but was considered too junior to have deep knowledge. According to a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Amiri had monitored employee safety at many of Iran’s atomic plants and facilities.
Amiri’s strange saga began when he vanished during a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia 13 months ago. It became clear that he was in the hands of Western intelligence agencies, and U.S. officials now say that he was spirited quickly to the United States.
Shortly after Amiri disappeared, Iran protested that he had been kidnapped by the United States.
It is unclear when Amiri’s debriefings by U.S. intelligence officials ended. But at some point he was placed in the national resettlement program, a sort of witness-protection program for defectors run by the CIA. But starting in the spring, his nervousness about the fate of his wife and child back in Iran grew markedly.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official said he thought the Iranians had threatened Amiri’s family, and a current U.S. official said “the Iranians are not above using relatives to try to influence people.” Whatever the reason, one evening, looking haggard and unshaven, Amiri made a video, apparently on a laptop computer.
It showed a young man saying in Farsi that he had been kidnapped in a joint operation involving the CIA and the Saudi intelligence service in Medina on June 3, 2009. He said that he had been taken to a house and injected with something and that when he awoke, he was on a plane to the United States.
He said he was recording the video on April 5 in Tucson, Ariz.
But hours later, another video appeared on YouTube, apparently made after the first one, with professional help. Appearing in a well-lighted room that appeared to be a library, with the added touch of a globe and a chessboard, Amiri looked well-groomed. He identified himself as a student in a doctorate program and said he was eager to complete his studies and return to his family.
He insisted that he was free and safe, and he demanded an end to what he called false videos about himself, saying he had no interest in politics or experience in any nuclear weapons programs.
On Tuesday, Clinton left it unclear why Amiri made his dramatic appearance at the Pakistani Embassy on Monday evening, seeking refuge, a passport and a plane ticket.
“He’s free to go,” she said. “He was free to come. Those decisions are his alone to make.”
Clinton, in insisting that Amiri could leave, called for the release of three American hikers who were arrested and charged with entering Iranian territory in July 2009. But, unlike the Russian spy swap last week, the United States made no effort to try to negotiate a trade, officials said.
David Albright, a nuclear expert and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said Amiri’s apparent re-defection could complicate U.S. efforts to lure informants.
“It’s embarrassing, because the United States wants to encourage these people to come out,” he said, adding, “Questions have to come up: Was he a double (agent)?”
Albright said that foreign scientists who defect to the West often find adjustment difficult. Their usefulness to intelligence agencies dwindles, and the social standing they enjoyed in their native land is absent. “It’s kind of a frustrating life,” he said.
Shahram Amiri made one video saying he had been kidnapped and another video contradicting the first.