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Intelligence coup

Published : Aug 13, 2010 00:00 IST


Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri with his son Amir Hossein after he arrived at the Imam Khomeini airport in Teheran on July 15.-RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS

Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri with his son Amir Hossein after he arrived at the Imam Khomeini airport in Teheran on July 15.-RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS

Missing Iranian nuclear scientist returns from the U.S. under dramatic circumstances in what is seen as a victory for Iranian intelligence.

SHAHRAM AMIRI, the 32-year-old Iranian who went missing while on a Hajj pilgrimage more than a year ago, returned to his country under dramatic circumstances on July 15. The Iranian authorities had maintained right from the day Amiri went missing in Saudi Arabia that he had been kidnapped in a joint operation by the United States and Saudi Arabian intelligence agents. They insisted that the young scientist was imprisoned and tortured in the U.S. Iran even presented evidence of his having been whisked off to the Swiss embassy in Teheran, which handles the U.S. interests in the country.

Welcoming Amiri back to Teheran, where he was reunited with his family, Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi reiterated that Amiri was not a nuclear scientist but only a researcher at Malek Ashtar University in Iran. Amiri's wife and the Foreign Ministry had maintained right through the episode that he was a researcher specialising in radioisotopes for medical purposes.

Videos featuring Amiri had begun to appear on the Internet a couple of months ago. In the first tape, a haggard-looking Amiri is seen describing the circumstances under which he was kidnapped. In the second video, which appeared just hours after the first one, Amiri, apparently tutored by his captors, is seen rebutting his earlier statement. In that video, Amiri says he is in the U.S. on his own volition. In the third tape, Amiri rejects the statements he made in the second tape, suggesting that they were made under duress.

Things took a dramatic turn when Amiri turned up at the Iranian Interest Section in the Pakistan Embassy in Washington on July 13 and declared that he wanted to return to his homeland immediately. The case became a cause celebre. Iran demanded that its citizen be given guarantees of safe return. With the international spotlight on the runaway Iranian, who the Americans claim is a nuclear scientist having knowledge about Iran's nuclear programme, the U.S. State Department backed down.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement in mid-June that Amiri was free to return home. She claimed that Amiri had come to the U.S. on his own free will and could leave whenever he wished to. Before Amiri surfaced at the Pakistan Embassy, the U.S. had denied any knowledge about the whereabouts of the scientist. The State Department has so far not produced any air ticket or visa application to back up its claims that he had entered the country voluntarily or through normal channels.

The U.S. decision to allow Amiri to leave may also be linked with the case of three American hikers who have been arrested and jailed by the Iranian authorities for illegally crossing into the country. The arrests took place in July 2009, after Amiri's abduction. The U.S. is hinting at a quid pro quo: it is demanding the release of the three Americans.

We allow people to come here, go home. We have our own citizens who have travelled to the region and are now in Iranian custody, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. He said Amiri's return to Iran should underscore that we expect the same kind of treatment for our citizens. However, Hassan Qashqavi said there was no connection between Amiri's return and the case of the three U.S. nationals. The entire incident is characterised as a diplomatic fiasco for the U.S.


The U.S. administration has earmarked huge clandestine funds, code-named Brain Drain, to induce Iranian scientists and engineers, having knowledge of Iran's nuclear programme, to defect. U.S. officials claim that they paid Amiri $5 million from this fund. They added that Amiri had to leave the money behind as U.S. law forbids repatriation of dollars to Iran.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been given authority since the beginning of the Cold War to bring in 100 people to the U.S. each year, bypassing ordinary immigration requirements. Reports in the U.S. media, based on briefings by security agencies, claim that Amiri was on the CIA's pay roll for a long time. They also claim that Amiri had provided valuable information about Iran's nuclear programme. These assertions are no doubt being made to make life tough for Amiri after his return.

Iranian officials, however, say that the Obama administration was forced to part with Amiri because of its failure to get statements from him that would have bolstered its case against Iran's nuclear programme. Iranian commentators have described the return of Amiri as another victory for the country's intelligence services.

The capture of Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of the Jundullah terrorist outfit, in February, was another important achievement of Iran's intelligence agencies. The Iranian authorities have alleged that Rigi was on the CIA's payroll. A few days after the return of Amiri, the Jundullah carried out a terror attack in the city of Zabedan, located near the country's border with Pakistan. Twenty-one people, including members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, were killed in the suicide attack.

A similar attack was carried out by the Jundullah in the same city last year. Iran has blamed the U.S. for the latest terror attack. It is well known that the Jundullah is among the many anti-Iranian insurgent groups supported by the U.S. In a massive outpouring of grief, thousands of Iranians turned up for the funeral of those killed in the latest terror attack.


When interviewed by Al Jazeera and other television channels after his return, Amiri reiterated that he was subjected to inhuman treatment when he was grilled for information and that Israeli officials were present during the interrogation. He was drugged and taken to the U.S. in a military plane. Amiri claimed that his handlers wanted him to address a press conference to announce that he had come to seek asylum and that he had handed over important files about Iran's nuclear programme. I can say for sure that I was kidnapped by the CIA with the assistance of Saudi Arabia, he said. He also said he had no expertise in any nuclear domain or anything else pertinent to the military nuclear domain and that he was a simple researcher working in a university.

A story in The Washington Post, sourced to the U.S. Intelligence, acknowledged that Amiri did not have direct access to Iran's most sensitive nuclear sites or leaders involved in decisions on whether to make a bomb.

However, according to the Washington-based investigative journalist Gareth Porter, both the U.S. and Iran have not yet come out with the entire truth. He told the Iranian Press TV that the CIA was so eager to have someone who would be willing to testify that the Iranians were carrying on a covert nuclear weapons programme, but I think they fell for a deception on the part of the Iranian government and Amiri. He wrote in his syndicated column that Amiri may have been acting on the Iranian government's orders to defect temporarily in order to embarrass the U.S. government. He is of the opinion that Amiri was encouraged to go the U.S. and convince the authorities there that he was indeed a genuine defector.

Teheran, he said, might have had a dual game plan, first to find out what the U.S. knew and secondly to embarrass the United States knowing that Amiri is not a senior scientist.

The Obama administration, Gareth Porter said, would not be able to use any information that it obtained from Amiri. The U.S. has a very bad embarrassment on its hands with regards to this case, he told Press TV. It was claiming for more than a year that a senior Iranian nuclear scientist had defected with a laptop having important secrets regarding Iran's nuclear programme.

Mohammad Marandi, a Professor of American Studies at Teheran University, told Press TV that the Amiri episode showed that the U.S. would go to any extent to manufacture evidence to fit in with its narrative that Iran was pursuing a clandestine nuclear programme. The Washington Post reported on April 25 that Amiri provided details about sensitive programmes, including a long-hidden enrichment plant near the city of Qom. An ABC television report a few days later stated that he had helped confirm U.S. intelligence assessments about the Iranian nuclear programme. The CIA's claim to having scored an intelligence coup in Iran has come a cropper.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 13, 2010.)



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