A murky tale of nuclear secrets, kidnapping, defections and political skulduggery is stoking tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and fuelling decades-old mistrust and hostility between Tehran and Washington.
The lead character is a little-known Iranian nuclear scientist, Shahram Amiri, who vanished mysteriously during a pilgrimage to Mecca in June. Iran claimed this week that he was one of 11 Iranians being held "illegally" by the United States or other countries at Washington's behest while it seeks their extradition. According to some reports, Iran hopes to secure their return in exchange for three US hikers detained in a notorious Tehran prison since they strayed over the country's northern border with Iraq in July.
The row comes at a delicate time. International attempts to defuse the Iranian nuclear crisis are faltering over Tehran's reluctance to accept a confidence-building measure it had tentatively agreed to in October. Decision-making in Tehran has been seemingly paralysed by unprecedented rifts in the Iranian leadership, spawned by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in June. It took Tehran three months to break the news of Mr Amiri's disappearance. Embarrassed by Arab and Iranian media speculation that a scientist working on its disputed nuclear programme had defected with damaging information, Tehran at the time described Mr Amiri only as a "pilgrim" or an "Iranian citizen".
That all changed this week when Tehran acknowledged for the first time that Mr Amiri was a nuclear scientist, and went on the attack. Iran's top diplomat, the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, accused the US of kidnapping Mr Amiri with Saudi collusion and demanded his return. A day later, Iran's influential speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, ramped up the rhetoric. He said the US was guilty of "terrorist behaviour" and accused the Saudis of being "conspirators" for allegedly extraditing Mr Amiri to the US.
Saudi Arabia angrily denied the charges. A Saudi foreign ministry spokesman told local media that the Iranian accusations had "stunned" and "deplored" him. The Saudi authorities, he said, had conducted an intensive search for Mr Amiri after Iran had informed Riyadh of his disappearance. It proved fruitless. The US State Department, meanwhile, insisted it had "no information" on the fate of Mr Amiri, who is understood to be in his 30s with a wife and relations still in Iran.
There has been speculation in regional and western media that Mr Amiri not only defected but played a role in the recent exposure of Iran's secret uranium enrichment plant at Qom. The United Nations' nuclear watchdog last month sharply rebuked Iran over the facility's existence, prompting a furious Tehran to declare - defiantly if unrealistically - that it would build 20 more such plants. Iran argued that Mr Amiri's disappearance underscored why Tehran had little trust in the West when it comes to resolving the nuclear dispute.
He is the second person involved in Iran's nuclear programme to have disappeared abroad in recent years. In early 2007, Ali Reza Asghari, a former deputy defence minister and retired general in the elite Revolutionary Guards, vanished during a private trip to Turkey. Iran accused western intelligence services of kidnapping him. US media cited officials in Washington at the time saying that Mr Asghari's disappearance was voluntary and he was providing invaluable information on Iran's ties to Hizbollah. Officially, the US claims to have no knowledge of his case either.
Mr Mottaki this week also raised the case of a third Iranian, Amir Hossein Ardebili, who Tehran claims was captured in Georgia and secretly extradited to the United States, where he pleaded guilty last year to charges of trying to illegally purchase weapons, US officials said last week. Ardebili, who was reportedly lured to Georgia in a US sting operation, is due to be sentenced next week after what Iran's Mehr news agency branded a "show trial".
Mr Mottaki said: "We urgently call on the US administration to put an end to such illogical behaviour and immediately and unconditionally release Ardebili along with other Iranian inmates in order to alleviate concerns of their families." Iranian media on Wednesday published a list identifying the 11 Iranians allegedly held in the US or other countries, and said Iran's foreign ministry was "vigorously" pursuing diplomatic means to secure their release.
Apart from the three named publicly by Iranian officials was a lorry driver, reportedly arrested in Canada earlier this year, and a former ambassador to Jordan, Nasrollah Tajik, who was allegedly detained in Britain for involvement in nuclear deals violating US sanctions against Iran. An Iranian non-governmental organisation claimed some among the 11 were subjected to "extraordinary rendition" and "incarcerated on false charges" in the US. Three are being detained in countries outside the US at Washington's request, Iranian media said.
Politico, a respected US political media organisation, reported that eight of the Iranians are being held on what are essentially arms dealing charges. Tehran is said to be linking their cases to that of three American hikers, graduates of Berkeley in California, who accidentally strayed into Iran while hiking on unmarked trails in Kurdish Iraq in July. Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, are being held in Tehran's Evin prison, accused of spying. Politico quoted a senior US administration official as saying: "We cannot accept the Iranian frame that there is an equivalence between indicted arms dealers and innocent hikers who happen to wander across a hostile border."
For some, the case is reminiscent of that of an American-Iranian journalist, Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in January. She was convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in jail. After concerted pressure from Washington, she was freed on appeal in May and returned home. Several months later, the US military released five Iranians it had held in Iraq for more than two years. A former senior US official, who has worked on Iran, told Politico that the case of the three US hikers appeared to be a case of hostage taking.
"They do this all the time," he said. "They try to trade them." firstname.lastname@example.org