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Was Amiri a Double Agent?

by BABAK SARFARAZ

15 Jul 2010 06:4113 Comments

62834_808.jpgStrong reasons to suspect nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri, purported defector and self-described kidnap victim, acted at behest of Iranian intelligence.

[ analysis ] Early Thursday morning, Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri, who vanished from Saudi Arabia thirteen months ago and allegedly defected to the United States, arrived at Tehran's international airport, where he was greeted by family members and a senior official of the Foreign Ministry. At a press conference, he repeated claims made in a video that aired on Iranian state TV last month -- that he was kidnapped and placed "under the harshest physical and mental torture," and that his American interrogators wanted to use him to disseminate falsehoods about the Iranian nuclear program. He added that Israeli agents were present at the interrogation sessions.

From the very beginning, the case has had a dubious air about it. Sometime in the first week of June 2009, Amiri disappeared while supposedly making his hajj pilgrimage. The first source to break the news was not the Iranian government, nor his family, but the Saudi-financed newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat. The London-based daily, which receives regular leaks from Saudi government sources, reported in late August that Amiri had in fact defected. Thus far, it looked like an unexceptional defection narrative.

However, it would soon be linked to an event that had taken place two weeks before the story's publication. In a meeting with the Saudi ambassador to Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minster Manouchehr Mottaki inexplicably criticized the Saudi government for its alleged mistreatment of Iranian nationals. He threatened retaliation if such practices continued. Days after the appearance of the Asharq Al-Awsat article, he elaborated on the matter to reporters after a cabinet meeting: "We have found documents that prove U.S. interference in the disappearance of the Iranian pilgrim Shahram Amiri in Saudi Arabia." The official Islamic Republic News Agency quotes him saying, "We hold Saudi Arabia responsible." This marked the first time in 30 years that an Iranian official had claimed that a reported defector in a high-profile defection case had been a victim of kidnapping.

Mottaki had referred to Amiri only as a "pilgrim". Beginning in September, the Iranian government initiated a carefully calibrated series of leaks revealing that Amiri was a nuclear scientist, which had not been previously been made public. On October 9, the hardline paper Javan, which is connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, made clear that the "pilgrim" was involved with Iran's nuclear program, stating that he had worked at Malek Ashtar University as a researcher. Malek Ashtar, which is run by the Defense Ministry, has long-standing ties to both the Revolutionary Guards and the nuclear program. The paper claimed that, on May 31, in one of his last calls to his family, Amiri told them of "unusual" questions directed to him by Saudi authorities Javan speculated that Amiri's disappearance had to do with the Saudi government's recent interest in obtaining a nuclear program of its own.

At first, the Obama Administration denied any knowledge of the case. Ultimately, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that Amiri had neither disappeared nor been kidnapped, but had in fact defected, implying that he had provided important information to the United States. Quoting anonymous sources, the Associated Press reported that Amiri had been the primary source of intelligence about the existence of a parallel uranium processing plant near Qom.

The plot thickened further when, in a completely unrelated context, CIA Director Leon Panetta said that the United States had known about Fordo, the nuclear plant near Qom, long before. He claimed that Israeli intelligence had furnished the CIA with detailed information on the plant three years earlier.

Iran, meanwhile, took advantage of every opportunity to reiterate its kidnapping charge. According to two Iranian journalists who spoke to Tehran Bureau on condition of anonymity, agents of the Intelligence Ministry, who have been assigned permanently to various newspapers after last year's rigged presidential election, demanded that the word "kidnap" be inserted into articles referring to Amiri.

The United States, following its usual practice in such matters, was completely silent about the case for months. Then, on June 7, Iranian state television broadcast a four-minute video showing Amiri in a recording supposedly made on April 5. The Iranian government claimed that its agents had obtained the recording through "special means" a few days earlier. In the video, Amiri, wearing a headset and dark casual clothes, sits with his back to a blank wall. He says,

On 13 Khordad 1388 [June 3, 2009], I was kidnapped in Medina in a joint operation by the terror and kidnapping teams of the Central Intelligence Agency and Saudi Arabian intelligence. They took me to an unknown location in Saudi Arabia and injected me with tranquilizers. I passed out and when I regained consciousness, I was on my way to be transferred to the United States.

Over the eight months that I have been kept in the U.S., I have been under the most severe torture and psychological pressure by the interrogation team of the CIA.... Their aim is to force me give an interview to one of the major U.S. TV networks saying that I am an important figure in the Iranian nuclear program, and that I have asked for asylum in the United States. I must say [in this interview] that I have important documents in my possession, as well as a computer with secret information.

The main goal has been to put political pressure on Iran, in order to condemn it and prove the lies that the U.S. has constantly been making up about Iran.

Amiri says that he is being kept in Tucson, Arizona, and pleads for help. He urges international human rights organizations to take up his case as he was "kidnapped unfairly in a third country and transferred to the U.S." He expresses his desire to be released and allowed to return to Iran and pleads for help. He concludes, "I want to ask my family to be patient, if they saw this speech of mine someday and heard my last words."

The quality of the video suggests that it was recorded with a web camera. The audio is interrupted for one or two seconds, presumably due to a drop in Internet connection speed.

A day later, another video of Amiri was posted on YouTube. Wearing a brightly colored suit, he is seated in a leather chair. A chessboard, large globe, and lamp are visible in the background. He says,

Hello, and thanks for the opportunity given to me to speak to the world community. My purpose in today's conversation is to put an end to all the rumors and accusations that have been leveled against me over the past year. I am Iranian and have not taken any step against my homeland. My wish is to see Iran and its people rising to the heights of progress and success. I do not hold any political views and have no interest in politics and discussions of any state and country. I am not involved in weapons research and have no experience and knowledge in this field.

He adds that he intends to pursue a Ph.D. in his field of medical physics, in order to help "increase health standards in Iran and worldwide."

After finishing my education, if the safety of my return is guaranteed, I hope that [I will return to Iran and that] my education here will be useful for Iranians and international scientific and academic society. I urge everyone to stop presenting false images of me. At the end I would like to thank the international society for its proper understanding and support for the positive progress made by Iran and the successes made by its glorious people.

I know that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran will take care of and protect my family. I want them to know that I have never left them and have always loved them.

In conclusion, he says that he hopes to see his family after finishing his education. (Click here for new analysis of videos.)

This past Monday, reportedly escorted by U.S. security officials, Amiri turned up at the small Iranian interests section of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, where he asked to return to Iran. At the press conference held after his arrival in Tehran, he said that he had never had any access to classified operations or information. He described himself as "a simple researcher who was working at a university."

Analysis

As far as the kidnapping charge goes, there is an unspoken rule among intelligence services that they do not kidnap each others' agents. (This rule also applies to all high-value individuals who may have access to sensitive information.) The practice arises out of sheer necessity: by engaging in kidnapping or other violent acts against your adversaries, you immediately invite retaliation by the other side. Things could soon escalate beyond anyone's control. A country that engages in such activities, as Iran did in the 1980s, is considered a pariah and ostracized, with manifold diplomatic and economic consequences.

Although the rule was ignored by the Bush administration in cases involving the fight against Al Qaeda and similar organizations, it has been consistently upheld in state-to-state relations. Still, in the unlikely event that the U.S. government actually kidnapped Amiri, it is inconceivable that they would simply let him go of his own accord. Thus the absurd claim by some hardline papers in Iran that he has escaped from his captors.

With the contingency of kidnapping effectively ruled out, we are left with two possibilities. The first is that Amiri defected, but then had a change of heart due either to pressures applied to his family in Iran or to feelings of homesickness and unhappiness with restricted circumstances, as many newspaper articles have suggested. There is a famous precedent for this. In 1985, Soviet spy Vitaly Yurchenko "redefected" to the Soviet Union after a short stay in the United States, allegedly for such reasons. (On his return, Yurchenko, like Amiri, claimed he had been drugged and abducted by the CIA.)

The second possibility is that his defection was fake and that Amiri was in fact tasked with the mission of acting like a genuine defector in order to embarrass Iran's adversaries, gain knowledge of their "methods and techniques," and score a noteworthy political and diplomatic victory. Already, hardline papers are touting it as a major "intelligence coup" on their front pages. Though it is likely that Amiri divulged some state secrets to his interrogators -- as it is assumed he did concerning the Fordo nuclear plant -- if he was indeed a double agent, his superiors must have weighed the cost and benefits of his "defection" and concluded that there was more to be gained by his going over to the other side than not. It is also possible that they suspected the West knew about Fordo already.

Regarding the first possibility, it is a very rare for defectors to return to their home countries; this is especially true of a brutal regime like the Islamic Republic, where a repatriated defector would likely face extensive, interrogation, torture, or even execution. (Saddam Husssein's son-in-law Hussein Kamel al-Majid, for instance, was executed after he returned to Iraq from Jordan.) The least that a lapsed defector could expect would be a lifetime of opprobrium and festering suspicions. Amiri, who has worked within the Iranian system for many years, would surely be aware of these perils. It is also relevant that even the most celebrated case of "redefection", Yurchenko's, is now believed to have been an elaborate penetration operation.

Whereas the "lapsed defector syndrome" is problematic for a variety of reasons, the likelihood of a fake defection seems quite plausible, particularly given the well-coordinated effort to portray the case as an abduction from the very beginning.

First, Iran has already gained a great deal from the incident. The Islamic Republic can now claim that Western intelligence reports on its most critical national security issue, the nuclear program, are largely fabricated. The return of Amiri and his charges of abduction by the CIA are major morale boosters for supporters of the regime and the cadres -- particularly the Intelligence Ministry agents -- whose esprit de corps has been weakened by a spate of unfavorable news in recent months.

Second, from now on, every high-value defector from Iran will be seen as a potential Shahram Amiri -- suspected of being a double agent, any such person is far more likely to be subjected to harsh interrogation and debriefing sessions.

Third, Amiri's experiences and observations while being held by the Saudi and U.S. intelligence services must provide their Iranian counterparts with invaluable knowledge of what is called their "methods and techniques" in the spy trade.

A final observation: The safe return of Amiri to Iran after more than a year abroad has rekindled interest in the cases of the three American hikers held in Iran since last summer and of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared on the island of Kish three years ago. As I described last month in The Nation, the three hikers, who were seized inside Iraqi territory, are actual victims of kidnapping. Amiri's return puts additional pressure on the Iranian government to release them. In the case of Levinson, who traveled to Kish presumably to research cigarette smuggling and is known to have met with American exile and admitted assassin David Belfield, alias Dawoud Salahedin, it is believed that he perished at the hands of his interrogators some time ago.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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13 Comments

Amiri was an asylum seeker, like millions of other Iranians who would do the same if they had the chance. Islamic regime in Iran does not allow military and government employees travel freely. They have to go through a clearing process and then are required to deposit a large sum and most often the deed to their home in order to be able to travel, even then they are seldom allowed to take family with them.
Clearly, Amiri was not able to get his family out and the regime got to them. The savage regime, as has often done before, must have threatened to kill them if he did not return. Poor guy had to make a choice to go back and face the music or have his wife and son tortured and possibly killed. What else could he do?

Maziari / July 15, 2010 12:55 PM

In order to find out the truth, Amiri's background and his family ties should be investigated further. However, knowing the kniving Iranian government, I have a strong suspicion that he may very well was a double-spy and his re-defections served many positive purposes for Iraninan government. Or at least what the Iranian government had hoped to accomplish.

Alex / July 15, 2010 9:38 PM

This regime has no credibility inside and out. Are they trying to impress their 5%-10% support base inside Iran? Fine. Otherwise, it was a wasted effort. I am of the opinion that the American government did not find him appealing enough and simply dumped him at the door steps of the Iranian interest section. He had no choice but to return to Iran for the sake of his family. The Iranian government will consume him for PR purposes. I hope he will remain safe for the sake of his family and their future.

Niloofar / July 15, 2010 11:02 PM

Gareth Porter: Clues Suggest Amiri Defection Was an Iranian Plant: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=52174

Anonymous / July 16, 2010 4:23 AM

Clearly, Amiri defected and tried the life of a defector for a year and found that he did not want to lead a life like that. Fortunately for him, it appears he is back with his family but I believe consequences for his action are to follow and they won't be pretty.

Suresh / July 16, 2010 7:07 AM

The best answer is usually the simplest one. smart guy He wanted a better life, he defected. he was promised by Americans that they would get his family out too. A year passed but nothing, he was homesick, He knew his family is in danger in Iran. He missed his son. He realized he made a mistake and accepted consequences to return home, Hope he and his family would be safe. .

James / July 16, 2010 12:24 PM

Hope this might help
" Iranian's member of any military organization do not get passport till they are retired from service " So , how could a researcher connected to the IRGC be allowed to have passport and travel to KSA?"

PersianTraveler / July 17, 2010 9:25 AM

The arguments are very weak!
The main argument is that "there is an unspoken rule not to kidnap each others agents." I think you have forgotten that the US arrested a few iranian diplomats in Iraq a few years ago.
According to the author the CIA and the US would never kidnap agents of other states. How naïve!
Please read the history and you will see what the CIA did to mossadeq.
One of the worst articles I have read on this website.

amin / July 17, 2010 3:26 PM

the article makes the same argument as the State Department. The check is in the mail Mr. "Sarforoush."

Anonymous / July 18, 2010 11:31 AM

I was going to trash the article and the author, but Amin said it all.
The article is consistent with the smear campaign launched to divert attention from the fact that he was kidnapped, denied he ever was in the US, and all of the sudden he was walking around in DC. One would think if the guy was released, he would be released outside the US since the State Department never acknowledged he was even here.

Thanks Amin, and PersianTraveler

Pouya / July 18, 2010 11:38 AM

What a bad article. The worst enemy of Iranians seems to be Iranian diaspora journalists. Shame on you, Babak.

As Amin said, the worst part of the article is your silly, "there is an unspoken rule not to kidnap each others agents". Agents have been not only involved in kidnappings but assasinations too.

Of course, if this wasn't enough, Babak even throws in the hikers comment, blaming Iran for arresting trespassers from an enemy state that constantly threatens war on its land as "kidnapping"!

M. Ali / July 19, 2010 10:44 AM

M. Ali

well said. Ofcourse all this is nonsense. I like your comment on the Iranian diaspora Journalists. They remain one of many drum beats and cheerleaders for war.

On the hicker issue, I agree with you, but clearly now they are being used for political purposes. I mean the price for traspassing is not months in jail. On the other hand, you will not find a single article on PBS.org's "green lovers forum" about the Iranians who have been in kidnapped in other countries and are now living in solitary confinement in Federal Prison in Colorado and other locations. This is further sign of deterioration of US-Iran behaviour toward one another. It seems they are reaching "TAHE DIG." Then what??

Pouya / July 20, 2010 11:15 AM

Pouya,

I fell little sympathy for the hippies that were hiking on the Iraq-Iran border.

Sometimes you just have to have a little common sense. The more you look at the history of those involved the more you see why the U.S. leftists are so out of touch with realities.

If the Iranians think holding these people is any benefit to them, they are even more out of touch. There are many factors of why this will not be benefical to the government of Iran. Maybe they are thinking of outdated benefits received 30 years ago with the detention of U.S. diplomats, maybe they don't really realize that the U.S. government and people have a totally different attitude about such things.

The U.S. people don't care nowadays for one, and the U.S. government knows this, and are not going to give up anything to free these people. What's more the Iranian government should have hugged these people and given them a weekly tv show where they could cry about how terrible the U.S. was.Maybe they tried that and these guys were too camera shy.

Muhammad billy bob / July 21, 2010 5:50 PM