x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The man who betrayed Iran to the CIA

In an exclusive interview, Reza Kahlili tells Hamida Ghafour why he spied for the US and speaks of his fears for researcher Shahram Amiri, who fled back to Tehran this week.

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Reza Kahlili, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who spied for the US, says ultimately Shahram Amiri, the nuclear scientist who has returned to Iran amid claims he was kidnapped, will be killed. His nom de guerre is Reza Kahlili and he was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the powerful military unit responsible for protecting Iran's clerical regime. He also says he was a CIA spy. And not even his wife knew about his double life. For 15 years, in the 1980s and 1990s, Mr Kahlili worked as a technical expert on military bases across Iran and was privy to sensational information about the Islamic republic, which he passed on to his American handlers.

He was well aware of the price he would pay if caught. Traitors had a specific punishment: his wife and son would have been raped in front of him in a prison cell, Mr Kahlili's eyes would then be gouged out and he would be hanged. But he was willing to take a chance because of disillusionment with the Islamic Revolution and what he described as its brutality towards critics. "My hope was that the West would realise these people are dangerous, they have no respect for humanity and I was hoping they would help Iranians to overthrow this government."

Of course that never happened. But his reward for co-operating with the CIA was a new life and identity in California. Mr Kahlili is one of the few people in the world who understands the dangerous pressures of high espionage in the battle of wills between Iran and its enemy, America. For spies and defectors, losing nerve for a moment could end up costing their life.

He has been watching this week's mystifying events unfold in the strange case of Shahram Amiri, the nuclear scientist who was either kidnapped by western secret agents or who defected to the West and changed his mind. Mr Amiri returned home to Tehran on Thursday and was reunited with his wife and seven-year-old son at Imam Khomeini International Airport. Appearing haggard, he immediately gave a press conference insisting that he was a simple university researcher kidnapped by Saudi and American intelligence agents while on pilgrimage in Medina in June last year. He was tortured and then offered US$60 million (Dh220m) to betray his country and give an interview on CNN, he said.

But the Americans have a different version of events. Unnamed sources told The New York Times that Mr Amiri, 32, was in fact a spy in Iran for several years, who passed on important information to the US about how the Malek e Ashtar University had become a covert operation for Iran's suspected nuclear arms programme. He was offered a $5 million (Dh18m) package to defect but got cold feet. Only Mr Amiri knows the truth.

But Mr Kahlili offered a grim prediction of what will happen once the fanfare of his return has faded. "He is going to be used as a propaganda tool by the Iranian government for as long as they can. But ultimately they are going to dispose of him. One scenario would be a fake suicide but I want you to know that they will ultimately kill him." The assessment comes from first hand experience which Mr Kahlili, now in his mid-50s, has written about in a new memoir, A Time To Betray: The Astonishing Double Life Of A CIA Agent Inside The Revolutionary Guards of Iran.

He does not give precise details, names or dates because he says his relatives in Iran would be harmed. In his few public appearances to promote the book, he has worn sunglasses, a hat and surgical mask. "I would still be a target for assassination," he insists in an interview with The National, during which he speaks through a modulator that deepens and distorts his voice. In the summer of 1979, Mr Kahlili was in Tehran, intoxicated with the promise of the Islamic Revolution and convinced its leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, would lead Iran into a Persian renaissance.

He had spent most of the decade studying at a university in California, partying with American girlfriends in Las Vegas and listening to rock music. But he left behind the hedonism and became a practising Muslim during the revolution. "What appealed to me was the way Ayatollah Khomeini was speaking. He was saying that a nation without freedom is not a civilised nation. All political parties have to be involved and a select few should not be reaping the rewards of the treasures of the country."

A boyhood friend had joined the military unit of the newly formed Revolutionary Guards. The friend vouched for Mr Kahlili who also signed up as a "technical expert". Within a year, however, he became disenchanted. The turning point came during a visit to the Evin prison, where several friends were being held. "I could hear while waiting in the hallway screams and pleas from the lower floor. I witnessed a friend's daughter being escorted to her execution."

He says teenaged girls were thrown in prison and raped just before their execution, in the belief that only virgins went straight to heaven. "I was shocked and horrified and became totally disillusioned with the revolution." On the pretext of wishing to care for a sick aunt in America he was given permission to travel. When he arrived, he contacted the FBI, which checked his documents and put him in touch with the CIA. After several meetings and a lie detector test in a safe house in Malibu, he was given the improbable code name Wally.

"I want you to be completely aware of the consequences if things go wrong," a CIA agent told him. "The US government will deny any relationship to you. There won't be a navy fleet coming to your rescue." Kahlilil was sent to Europe to learn the trade, including writing letters with invisible ink. "I questioned my sanity over and over. How could I be doing this? Jeopardising my family and myself? But I was trying to do something to effectively change the government."

His job as a technical expert - he refuses to be more specific - took him to Guards' bases all over Iran and gave him access to documents revealing the regime's inner workings. He alerted his CIA handlers to the fact that Iran intended to seize the Iraqi city of Basra during the 1980-1988 war between the countries. Kahlili's information helped the US to decide to back Saddam Hussein, David B Crist, a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute For Near East Policy, and senior Defense Department official, said recently.

Other claims he made were that China was training Revolutionary Guards fighters and that Khomeini had personally authorised Iran's nuclear programme. Mark Zaid, Mr Kahlili's lawyer, has said his client's book was submitted to the US government before publication and given clearance. Mr Kahlili had several close calls in Iran, where his identity was nearly exposed but by the late 1980s he realised that the US would not help to overthrow the government. Taking on a less dangerous role, he took his family to Europe where he recruited dissidents, before settling down in the United States in the early 1990s.

All this time his wife, whom he calls Somaya, believed he was travelling to the West on behalf of his work with the Revolutionary Guards. "I confessed to her after 9/11. She was shocked. She couldn't accept it because I had lied so much. But I think now I am forgiven, I hope to God." Mr Kahlili speculates that Mr Amiri had chosen to defect but probably had not thought through the consequences and was trying to orchestrate an elaborate campaign to return home without him or his family being harmed.

"I was involved in recruiting and, based on my own espionage activity, it is always a voluntary proposal. You get better information if there are carrots shown like sympathy, a new life in the West." But he may have become homesick. "This is my view only. He became homesick and his mistake was he contacted his son and wife through the internet and the Iranian intelligence agents picked up on that.

"They told him they would torture his wife and son and they'll make sure he will see it unless he puts up a video saying he was abducted and comes back to Iran. I think that's the reason he made the first video. The second video was done by the US authorities just to show the world he has not been abducted. And things got progressively out of hand after that. What he is putting out right now, it is in the hope the Iranians will buy the story. But the drugging and kidnapping, I think, is bogus."

Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow for non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the London think tank, and a former state department official said it was plausible that the Americans would have a specific operation to lure away Iranian nuclear researchers. "The US and their allies and friends have various resources at their disposal to limit Iran's nuclear weapons programme and luring scientists away is certainly one of the tried and true methods in the past."

But the Amiri fiasco may have serious consequences for America's ability to convince other Iranian nuclear experts to switch sides, Mr Kahlili says. "Now he is in danger, he didn't gain anything, and those considering leaving Iran would feel the US betrayed him in not protecting him or advising him better. I think any intelligence agency should first observe the mentality of the individual before recruiting. People who do not have a high level of confidence and courage are wrong targets."

He adds: "The bottom line i,s he probably knows that they will dispose of him but he is sacrificing himself for his wife and son." After more than a year of insisting Mr Amiri had been kidnapped, the Iranian authorities now appear to have backtracked. "We first have to see what has happened in these two years and then we will determine if he's a hero or not," Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister, told a French news agency. "Iran must determine if his claims about being kidnapped were correct or not." Mr Kahlili's website can be viewed here: www.atimetobetray.com

hghafour@thenational.ae