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The case of the missing Iranian nuclear physicist

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

06 Oct 2009 16:317 Comments

[ comment ] New information has emerged indicating that the United States may have become aware of the developing Qom uranium enrichment facility by an Iranian nuclear scientist -- or at the very least, the scientist may have confirmed U.S. suspicions about the site.

As first reported by Tehran Bureau, the scientist, Shahram Amiri, went missing in May. Amiri, a nuclear physics researcher at Malek-e Ashtar University (which is linked to Iran's military), was working at the Qom facility.

Amiri traveled to Saudi Arabia last May, ostensibly for the Omreh Haj - the pilgrim to Mecca - but disappeared there and has not been heard from ever since. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hassan Ghashghavi, has confirmed that Amiri is missing.

When asked by a reporter during an Oct. 5 press conference whether Amiri has defected to the West by seeking political asylum in Saudi Arabia, he responded that "he has disappeared there."

But Jahan News, an Iranian website close to the conservatives, reported that a Saudi official said that Amiri has received political asylum in Saudi Arabia.

In a joint press conference with Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain and President Nicholas Sarkozy of France on September 25, President Obama stated that, "earlier this year, there was an accumulation of evidence that gave us high confidence that this [the Qom site] was intended to be a uranium enrichment facility." (Emphasis in italics throughout article author's.)

President Obama also said that, "We began consulting with our partners earlier this summer to coordinate the disclosure of the site."

The official U.S. statement about the Qom site said, "Earlier this year, we developed information that gave us increased confidence that the [Qom] facility was a uranium enrichment site."

U.S. intelligence officials have said that while they have known for several years about the Qom facility, their confidence about its purpose "increased measurably this year."

All four statements keep referring back to a time period that coincides with Amiri's disappearance in Saudi Arabia.

The official U.S. statement regarding the Qom facility also stated that, "We have reason to believe that Iran's letter [to the IAEA] refers to this [Qom] site, and the timing of the letter may have been prompted by Iranian fears that the existence of the secret site may soon become known."

Iranian officials are not naïve enough to believe that the construction activities at the Qom site would not be detected by U.S. satellites or those belonging to its allies. Therefore, if any "fear" of disclosure prompted Iran to send a letter to the International Atomic Energy Organization on Monday, Sept. 21, 2009, to notify the Agency about the existence of the Qom facility, its source could not have been the satellites, but rather a person, or "a human source."

Asked about the certainty of U.S. intelligence, the official said that "we have excellent clandestine collection" and "multiple, independent sources... that allow us to corroborate. We are highly confident that the facility is for uranium enrichment," which again indicates that a human source may have been involved.

Iran's Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, recently said that, "We submit our complaint about the kidnapping of our nuclear scientists to the international community." He mentioned Amiri as one of the kidnapped scientists.

Iran's former deputy Defense Minister, Brigadier General Ali Reza Asgari, disappeared in Istanbul, Turkey, in February 2007. He was either kidnapped, as some Arab officials claimed (he had traveled to Istanbul from Damascus, Syria), or defected to the West. His current whereabouts remain unknown. It is believed that it was due to the information that Asgari provided that the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007 stated with high confidence that Iran had ended its secret nuclear weapon program in 2003, although no credible evidence has ever surfaced about the existence of the program.

Dr. Ardeshir Hosseinpour, an authority on electromagnetism who worked at the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan, died under mysterious circumstances in January 2007. It is widely believed that he was murdered by Israel's Mossad. Earlier, in July 2001, Col. Ali Mahmoudi Mimand, known as the father of Iran's missile program, was found murdered in his office in Tehran.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

Cover photo alteration/Boston Globe.

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Dr. Sahimi, since the post-election situation, there have been several incidents of open source Iranian military disclosures which have come to light. For example, Dr. Geoffrey Forden at MIT has come into possession of highly sensitive Iranian government memos related to Iran's ballistic missile program. Also, someone with intimate and immediate knowledge of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force has, on an open technical military forum, continued to provide details on the IRIAF's state of readiness (which I won't share here). Keep in mind these leaks cannot be verified by means of open sourcing.

I should point out that in any country, this kind of thing would be considered a treasonable offense.

To an extent, these incidents are not unusual during conditions of Cold War, and that's really what's been going on between the US and Iran for over thirty years now. I suppose one could claim that the present head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, is something of a US defector to Iran, having a Ph.D from MIT. I think its fair to assume that Salehi, and others like him, are driven by a sense of patriotism. How else to explain their commitment to the Islamic Republic of Iran, when they could easily acquire more lucrative careers in the West?

-Mark Pyruz

Mark Pyruz / October 6, 2009 10:33 PM

Guys, your RSS feed has been a little messed up since you moved. Everything in my RSS reader (akregator) shows as a big mess of text without most htmlization. Paragraphs and line breaks are gone. I'm posting this here because I can't find any contact information.

mc / October 7, 2009 4:43 AM

Dear Mark:

Thank you for your note. I am aware of the blog and do read it. It is very good. I was also aware of your points about disclosures.

1. Regardless of how one feels about the IRI, such disclosures are nothing but commiting treason, pure and simple. I cannot justify such acts under ANY circumstances.

On the other hand, one should expect such treacherous acts, because after what happened in Iran, some people are willing to do anything against the IRI.

2. The case that I discuss in the article is a separate issue, simply because of the significance that the world attaches to Iran's nuclear program. It also shows that the U.S. is nothing telling us the whole story.

Muhammad Sahimi / October 7, 2009 6:03 AM

On the question of treason perhaps one of you can enlighten me. At what point in the decline of a republic into a military dictatorship which suppresses the constitutional and human rights of its citizens does it cease to be "treacherous" to act against the interest of the constitutionally offensive regime?

Michael Ricks / October 7, 2009 8:37 PM

You're a good man, Dr. Sahimi.

Mark Pyruz / October 8, 2009 12:03 PM

Treason - perhaps to a current regime, but the concept of governance has evolved in both the East and West beyond simplistic adherence to a leader. From a reasonably well known political document, " ...governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government..."

Did Kamal Ata Turk commit treason, or rescue a dying Turkey from being a British protectorate?

That document comntinues, "... when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security."

There is evidence - strong evidence from within Iran - that Iranians see their government has been co-opted by the personal power of a very few corrupt despots who have abandoned the principles of the Revolution for the trappings of power that they will not relinquish.

It is important to note the many releases of information seem to post-date the recent "election". They, the Iranians who released this info, may see themselves as fighters for Iran as a nation, trying stop the usurpation of power by a corrupt cabal.

R. Hillery / October 8, 2009 6:00 PM

Dear R. Hillery:

I do not agree with your premise.

Regimes come and go, some sooner some later. What must survive and thrive is the nation itself. That won't happen, if that nation's national rights are somehow forgotten, given up, or taken away.

Iran's progress in nuclear technology is a national asset. It was started by the Shah, and continued by the regime that overthrew the Shah. A program cannot get any more national than that.

Iran has signed all the relevant international agreements regarding the nuclear technology, which Israel, Pakistan, and India - three states with nuclear weapons - have not. If Iran has abided by its international obligations regarding the treaties that it has signed - and in this particular case it has to a very large extent according to the IAEA reports (not what the US or Ahmadinejad says) - then it is also entitled to its benefits and rights - in this case full nuclear technology.

The apartheid regime - one of the most evil regimes - also developed the nuclear technology and nuclear bombs - six of them. After Nelson Mandela and his group liberated South Africa, they dismantled the 6 nuclear bombs that the apartheid regime had built. But, the fact remains that the know-how generated by the apartheid regime is a national asset for all South Africans.

Muhammad Sahimi / October 11, 2009 11:31 AM