x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

'Kidnapped' Iranian scientist turns up in Washington

The tale of a "missing" nuclear scientist whom Tehran claims was taken by the United States takes a new twist.

The curious tale of a "missing" Iranian nuclear scientist whom Tehran claims was kidnapped by the United States a year ago took a new twist yesterday. Shahram Amiri suddenly surfaced in the Iranian interests section of Pakistan's embassy in Washington, seeking refuge and an immediate return to Tehran. The US said he was free to go. Analysts in Tehran believe Mr Amiri's repatriation may be rewarded by the release of three American hikers held in Iran since apparently straying across the border from northern Iraq a year ago.

The Pakistani embassy has managed Iran's interests in Washington since the US severed ties with the Islamic republic in April 1980, after the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran five months earlier. Mr Amiri "has been in the United States of his own free will", said Philip Crowley, the US State Department spokesman. A Pakistani diplomat told the BBC's Persian service that Mr Amiri was in good health and there was no sign he had been tortured.

Mr Amiri proclaimed that the "disgraced" US government was the "loser" in the long-running stand-off over Iran's nuclear ambitions. "They [the Americans] wanted to quietly return me to Iran by some country's airline, so that while denying the whole thing, they can put a cap on [my abduction]. But in the end they couldn't," Mr Amiri said. The dramatic events seemed to support Iran's allegations that Mr Amiri was abducted by US intelligence agents when he vanished mysteriously during a pilgrimage to Mecca in June last year.

But serious questions remain in a case of political skullduggery, psychological warfare and nuclear espionage that involved the intelligence agencies of Iran, the US and, possibly, Saudi Arabia. If Mr Amiri was being held against his will in the US, how did he escape the clutches of his CIA interrogators? Equally, if he defected, as the ABC news network reported in March, why would he now want to return home? ABC had maintained that Mr Amiri's disappearance was "part of a long-planned CIA operation" to get him to abscond and quoted US agents as describing his alleged defection as "an intelligence coup".

Washington has denied both kidnapping Mr Amiri and involvement in his defection. Saudi Arabia has also "deplored" Iranian accusations it played any role in his disappearance. Ali Ansari, a renowned Iran expert at St Andrews University in Scotland, speculated that Mr Amiri may have had second thoughts after defecting. "Perhaps he was hoping for better treatment." At the same time, Mr Ansari, who stressed that he had no inside knowledge on the case, said it was possible that, having debriefed Mr Amiri for several months, the CIA had concluded "he didn't have much to say".

If so, the US authorities may have decided to allow Mr Amiri the pretence that he had been held against his will so that he would not face retribution on his return home. To collude in his escape would mean a readiness by the CIA to face embarrassing accusations of incompetence. Yet there will be speculation that the US was prepared to accept this in return for a significant pay-off. Tehran had previously hinted it would trade the three American hikers it has held since last July for a number of Iranians allegedly held in the US, including Mr Amiri.

Iran's hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and other Iranian officials, have denounced them as spies, although no charges have been brought. Western media had speculated Mr Amiri was an invaluable source of rare human intelligence on Iran's nuclear programme. Three months after his disappearance, the West blew the whistle on a secret uranium enrichment plant under construction near the holy city of Qom.

Those revelations forced short-lived Iranian concessions during nuclear negotiations. Before he vanished, Mr Amiri, 32, worked at Tehran's Malek Ashtar University, an institution closely connected to the country's powerful Revolutionary Guards. He has a wife and young daughter still in Tehran. The Iranian regime would have exploited this acutely sensitive pressure point to force him to return and denounce Washington, analysts said.

Adding to the confusion were three contradictory videos purportedly released by Mr Amiri in recent weeks. The first surfaced on June 8 in which he claimed he had been abducted by Saudi and US agents, tortured, forced to say he had defected and was being held against his will at a desert location in Tucson, Arizona. How he managed to post the video on the internet in such constrained circumstances was never explained.

Within hours a second video posted on YouTube showed a fuller-faced Mr Amiri proclaiming he was safe and voluntarily in the US, pursuing a PhD. In the third video, which was broadcast by Iranian state television on June 29, a man claiming to be the missing scientist, proclaimed: "I, Shahram Amiri, am a national of the Islamic Republic of Iran and a few minutes ago I succeeded in escaping security agents in Virginia [which is home to the CIA]."

He said he could be "re-arrested at any time" and denounced as a "complete fabrication" the second video in which it was claimed he was living freely in the US. Iran experts suspect the first and last video may have been fakes staged by the Iranian regime to intimidate others from defecting. Or they could have been genuine videos, made with Mr Amiri's assistance, possibly to ease the pressure on his family in Tehran.

It did not bode well for Iranian intelligence whether Mr Amiri had defected or was kidnapped. Tehran, nevertheless, argued that his disappearance highlighted western perfidy and showed why it could not trust the US in negotiations to resolve the protracted and increasingly tense nuclear dispute. @Email:mtheodoulou@thenational.ae