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Tehran says U.S. had role in nuclear scientist's disappearance

Shahram Amiri, who might have worked at a recently disclosed nuclear plant, went missing during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Iran's foreign minister says Tehran has proof of U.S. interference.

October 08, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman and Ramin Mostaghim

CAIRO AND TEHRAN — Intrigue over Iran's nuclear program deepened Wednesday when Tehran accused the U.S. of involvement in the disappearance of a nuclear scientist it claims vanished after leaving for a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia in late May.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Shahram Amiri has not been heard from since shortly after he entered the Saudi kingdom, a close U.S. ally agitated over Iran's nuclear program. Iranian news media reported that Amiri researches nuclear technology uses for medicine, but other reports suggested he worked at a recently disclosed uranium enrichment plant near Qom.

"We have found documents that prove U.S. interference in the disappearance of the Iranian pilgrim Shahram Amiri in Saudi Arabia," Mottaki told reporters after a Cabinet meeting, according to Iran's state-owned Press TV. He did not release the documents.

The official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Mottaki as saying, "We hold Saudi Arabia responsible."

The accusations come as the U.S. and other world powers are threatening Iran with new sanctions if it doesn't cooperate with United Nations inspectors regarding its nuclear program. The scientist's disappearance raises the possibilities of kidnapping; an intellectual seeking asylum; or a defection arranged by American and Saudi intelligence agencies.

Iranian officials said Saudi Arabia had not responded to inquiries on the scientist's whereabouts.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said he had no information about the matter, according to the Associated Press. "The case is not familiar to us," he said.

The Saudi-owned Al Sharq al Awsat newspaper reported that Amiri sought protection in Saudi Arabia. The story could not be independently confirmed, and it was not known whether the scientist provided information to the U.S. about the Fordu plant near Qom.

The Obama administration has said U.S. intelligence had known about the plant's construction near a military base for several years -- well before Amiri's pilgrimage in May.

"If Saudi Arabia claims Shahram Amiri has sought asylum, the best way to prove it is to hold a press conference," said Ebrahim Yazdi, secretary-general of the Freedom Movement of Iran and a former foreign minister. "And if Iran claims there is evidence that he has been kidnapped with USA involvement, it is advisable to demonstrate the evidence to the public."

Relations between the Sunni Muslim kingdom and Shiite-dominated Iran have been strained in recent years. Saudi Arabia has blamed Iran for creating instability in the region through its support of the militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The kingdom and other Sunni nations in the Persian Gulf have been uneasy about Iran's nuclear program, which Washington claims is aimed at building nuclear weapons.

Tehran says its nuclear efforts are for civilian use.

The recent revelation of the Fordu plant -- which is expected to house 3,000 new centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium -- spurred Washington and its European allies to pressure Iran to divulge more about its nuclear sites. Iran agreed over the weekend to allow U.N. inspectors into the Fordu plant on Oct. 25.

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Mostaghim is a special correspondent.

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