Was Amiri a Double Agent?
by BABAK SARFARAZ
15 Jul 2010 06:41
Strong 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."
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.
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