De­fec­tor or CIA vic­tim? Ira­nian’s saga takes a U-turn to­ward bizarre

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By David E. Sanger

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.

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