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Mystery of the Missing Physicist

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

09 Jun 2010 22:02No Comments

Recently broadcast videos only add to questions surrounding disappearance of Shahram Amiri.

There is a new row in the neverending confrontation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States over the events that led to the disappearance of Shahram Amiri, a scientist supposedly involved with Iran's nuclear program. He was affiliated with Malek-s Ashtar University, which is controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Based in Shahinshahr, near Esfahan in central Iran, it also has a branch in Tehran. The school offers a rigorous science program and has been involved in a variety of research projects. Its rector, Brigadier General Mohammad Mehdi Nejad-Nouri of the Revolutionary Guards, was named in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1737, issued December 23, 2006, as one of those involved in the Iranian nuclear program whose foreign assets were ordered frozen.

In late May 2009, Amiri left Iran for Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage. He called his family from Mecca, but was not heard from again. For a few months, his disappearance attracted little notice.

In autumn 2009, events surrounding the Iranian nuclear program suddenly drew international attention to his case. On September 22, Iran sent a terse letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), announcing that it was building a new uranium enrichment facility near Qom. Four days later, U.S. President Barack Obama, then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarzoky, who were attending an economic summit in Pittsburgh, arranged for a press conference at which Obama declared that the United States and its allies had "discovered" the facility and presented the evidence to the IAEA -- despite the fact that the president knew full well that Iran had already informed the agency of the construction.

That same day, a senior U.S. intelligence official said that Western intelligence agencies had "excellent access" to the site, suggesting that spies had already penetrated it. The official also said that "multiple independent sources" had confirmed that it was intended for nuclear use. These statements in all likelihood indicate that Amiri knew about the Qom facility and told U.S. officials about it.

In early October, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced, "We've obtained documents about the U.S. involvement in Shahram Amiri's disappearance. We hold Saudi Arabia responsible for Shahram Amiri's situation and consider the U.S. to be involved in his arrest." In response, Ian Kelly, U.S. State Department spokesman, said only that "the case is not familiar to us." Saudi Arabia also rejected the accusation. Amiri's family, including his wife, cast doubt on the possibility that he had defected to the United States or another Western country.

The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) has denied that it ever employed Amiri, but that does not means much. Although the AOEI is nominally in charge of the nuclear program, its most sensitive elements, including the enrichment facilities and research and development for the manufacture of advanced centrifuges, are most likely controlled by other authorities.

What does Amiri possibly know about Iran's nuclear program? He is said to be an expert on nuclear isotopes, but that tells us little, as the project he was working on has never been revealed. He is also young, in his early 30s, and therefore was almost certainly not in a senior position. In addition, Iran has learned from past experience and compartmentalized its nuclear program, so that people at work on a given project are not well informed of the others.

Better evidence for what Amiri knows may come from further Iranian declarations and U.S. "revelations." The fact that Iran felt compelled to declare the existence of the Qom uranium enrichment facility at least a year before it was legally obliged to under Code 3.1 of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA is a strong indication that Amiri knew about it.

In the months since, the United States has made no further accusations about undeclared facilities and the IAEA has reported no evidence that any exist. Still, there is a hint that significant information has yet to be officially revealed. In a report to the Board of Governors of the IAEA issued this February, Director-General Yukiya Amano stated, "While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran, Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities."

The implication is clear: The IAEA thinks that there may be undeclared nuclear material in Iran, though the agency has never presented evidence to support such a suspicion. Does Amano know something that has not been aired, perhaps because the IAEA cannot confirm it? If so, what is the source of this information? Under Amano's predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei, who stepped down in December 2009, the director-general's reports never used such language.

In March, ABC News reported that Amiri had defected to the United States. The television report quoted officials who declared the defection an "intelligence coup." If it is a coup, it has yet to prove very fruitful.

The mystery deepened when two competing videos of Amiri were released. In a four-minute video broadcast by Channel Two of the Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic (the national TV and radio network) on June 7, Amiri is seen sitting with his back to a blank wall with a headset on, taping a video message supposedly recorded on April 5. Iran claimed that its agents had obtained the recording through "special means" a few days earlier. In the video, Amiri 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 then says, "I want to ask my family to be patient, if they saw this speech of mine someday and heard my last words."

In the video, Amiri wears dark casual clothes. 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, a new 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.

Which of these videos is more believable? My initial reaction to the first was skeptical. Amiri has either defected to the United States or he has been kidnapped. If he defected, we would have to assume that he recorded this first message because he changed his mind and regrets what he has done. But then, obviously, the substance of what he says is a fabrication. If, on the other hand, he was kidnapped, how could he have had the opportunity to record the message at all? A grievous lapse in security? He does seem genuinely worried. Why does the background image look so confined? If the message was sent on April 5, why did it take so long for Iran to broadcast it? Could the delay (if there was one) have something to do with the imminent votes in the Security Council?

Watching the second video again, however, I noticed that it too had several anomalies. Amiri does not look relaxed. If he is really free, why does he seem so stressed? The Farsi he speaks is too literal and formal. It sounds as if it was written in English by his handlers, and then translated without regard for the informalities that are part of colloquial Farsi. His eyes appear to follow a text that is somewhere other than next to the camera. There is also some suspicious pixelation in the area around his mouth (with advanced software, it might be possible to check this against the rest of his facial motions).

The content of what he says also raises questions. He declares that he is free and departed Iran of his own volition. If that were true, we would expect that his family would have known of his plans, yet he asks that they be informed that he has not left them.

State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley said on June 8, "Have we kidnapped an Iranian scientist? The answer is no." This is hardly a definitive declaration. What if Saudi Arabia kidnapped him and delivered him to the United States? No one, least of all the CIA, is willing to say anything more specific. But stay tuned. We have not yet heard the last word on this subject.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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