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Iran nuclear scientist drops clue about his disappearance last year

Shahram Amiri says he was 'not completely free, not completely in jail.' Intelligence experts say his remarks suggest he defected; he may have asked to leave the U.S. because he missed his family.

July 14, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Beirut — Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri headed back to Tehran on Wednesday after dropping a cryptic and perhaps inadvertent clue about his mysterious odyssey since disappearing more than a year ago.

"I was in a unique situation: not completely free, not completely in jail," he said in an interview broadcast on Iranian state television. "It is difficult to explain."

For more than a year, Amiri has been at the center of a murky and clandestine tug of war between Tehran and Washington. The case blew open when Amiri showed up Monday evening, apparently escorted by U.S. security officials, at the small Iranian interests section of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, where he asked to return to his homeland.

It remains impossible to know whether Amiri was kidnapped during a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia last year, as Iranians contend, and subjected to extreme psychological pressure by American officials hoping to extract nuclear secrets, or if, as American officials insist, he voluntarily defected but eventually yearned to return home to his family.

Amiri's televised remark, international intelligence experts say, conjures up the image of a classic defection, in which a foreign national is kept in safe houses under strict official supervision while undergoing weeks of grueling debriefings.

"If he came here of his own free will, as a quid pro quo, then we need to talk to you," said a former CIA analyst, who has himself debriefed defectors. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

"These debriefings are fairly intensive and involve long hours. Certainly he can't walk around town," he said. "He would be kept out of sight. There would be people to protect him and make sure he's not doing anything stupid."

Western experts say Amiri is almost certainly a defector and not a victim of kidnapping because the information gleaned from someone forced to talk under such circumstances would be suspect.

"If you put pressure on someone like this it's very difficult to have good information," said Eric Denece, a former French intelligence analyst who heads the Center for Intelligence Studies in Paris.

Rather, Amiri was probably afforded the five-star treatment of a prized defector for his knowledge of Iran's steadily expanding nuclear infrastructure. Washington has vowed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weaponry, a goal Tehran denies it is pursuing.

Very possibly, analysts said, Amiri was approached by or reached out to U.S. or other Western intelligence services long before he disappeared in the spring of 2009.

He may have handed tidbits of information to his handlers before his trip to the U.S. But after living the exciting life of an overseas spy, being stuck in a town such as Tucson, where Amiri had claimed he was being held in videotapes posted to the Internet, must have seemed a major drop in stature.

"This debriefing process takes a long, long time," said the former CIA analyst. "It's not glamorous in films like, 'Here, take the microfiche and run away.' These are exhausting, endless interviews."

He added, "When you're in touch overseas you're treated in a very special away. When you come here it's kind of a letdown. It's time to produce."

As a relatively low-level scientist within Iran's nuclear institutions, working as a radioisotope researcher for the nation's Atomic Energy Organization, Amiri probably didn't have access to the most sensitive aspects of Iran's nuclear program. But because of his job and his affiliation with a university close to the Revolutionary Guard, he could have provided important intelligence about the milieu in which the foot soldiers of Iran's nuclear program operated.

"He probably gave a lot of information about the physical and social context of the nuclear program and the psychological mentality of the people, which could be useful to help recruit people later," Denece said.

After a while, though, Amiri probably outlived his usefulness and was urged to move on with his life.

"Such a scientist is just interesting for three or four months," Denece said. "After that he's of no interest. It's not an asset of very high value."

That's when trouble may have started for Amiri, whose wife and child remained in Iran, analysts said.

Instead of taking up a fellowship at a think tank or embarking on his version of the American dream, Amiri appears to have grown increasingly anxious in the U.S. He posted a series of bizarre and contradictory Internet videos last spring in which he claimed he was either imprisoned under duress, demanding to return to Iran, or just studying in the U.S. Iranian officials clamored for his return.

By the time he showed up Monday at the diplomatic outpost in northwest Washington, he probably had been extensively debriefed about the risks to himself and to his family of returning to Iran, analysts said.

"Obviously this has been preceded by a lot of, 'I'm not happy,' " said the former CIA analyst. "His handlers probably threw up their hands and said, 'Fine, this is your decision.' "

Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.

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