x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

'Kidnapped' scientist returns to Iran a hero

Reports in US say Shahram Amiri provided useful intelligence on Tehran's nuclear plans and returned only out of fear for his family.

Shahram Amiri flashes a victory sign while holding his son at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran yesterday.
Shahram Amiri flashes a victory sign while holding his son at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran yesterday.

An Iranian nuclear scientist who claimed he was kidnapped by the CIA over a year ago returned home to a well-choreographed hero's welcome yesterday. A beaming Shahram Amiri, garlanded with flowers and flashing a victory sign, told reporters at Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport that he had been subjected to the "harshest mental and physical torture" in the United States.

He maintained that agents from Israel, Iran's arch enemy, were involved in his interrogation, adding that the CIA had threatened to hand him over to Israel if he refused to co-operate. The US intelligence agency, he claimed, had offered him US$50 million (Dh184m) to remain in America, declare he had defected and "spread lies" about Iran's nuclear programme. He rejected blandishments and pressure alike, he insisted. "With God's will, I resisted."

His case is a tale of duelling narratives. The US has scorned claims it abducted, imprisoned and tortured Mr Amiri, 32, as "ludicrous". Leading American media reported he was a willing and valuable defector who got cold feet, probably after the regime threatened the family he left behind to force his return. As he touched down in Tehran, the Washington Post's online edition reported that Mr Amiri was paid more than $5m by the CIA to provide intelligence on Iran's nuclear programme.

His co-operation with the CIA before his abrupt return to Iran had been "significant", unnamed US officials told the daily. Publicly, the truth behind Mr Amiri's 14-month disappearance may never emerge. But if he did defect, his long-term future in Iran could be fraught with danger once he has been milked for his short-term propaganda value, some analysts said. Others believe it is in Tehran's interests to treat him well if they hope to coax other defectors to return.

Iran's foreign minister, Manou-chehr Mottaki, yesterday declared Mr Amiri a "dear compatriot". At the same time, if the scientist's theatrical homecoming resulted from threats to his loved ones, it would serve as a warning to other Iranian exiles or would-be defectors: you may leave the country but you will always be within our reach. Tehran portrayed Mr Amiri's homecoming as a severe and embarrassing blow to American intelligence services. A prominent parliamentarian, Alaeddin Borourjerdi, lambasted his alleged abduction as a "terrorist act".

Iranian state media claimed pressure from Tehran had forced Washington to hand Mr Amiri over publicly, rather than have him repatriated in secret to hide his abduction. In turn, numerous unnamed US officials insisted Washington came out on top. One scoffed to the BBC: "He provided useful information to the United States. The Iranians now have him. In terms of win-loss, it's not even a close call."

Western analysts discounted the kidnapping theory. "It looks to me far more likely that he defected to the USA and then had second thoughts, for whatever reason," said Nigel Inkster, of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. Some observers speculated Mr Amiri became resentful after the CIA realised he was not privy to particularly valuable intelligence on Iran's nuclear ambitions and refused to cater to his every whim. It is also possible the CIA failed to deliver on a promise to get his family out of Iran.

Mr Amiri played down his role in Iran's nuclear programme, claiming he was a "simple researcher" at a Tehran university. "I'm not involved in any confidential jobs. I had no classified information," he said at a pre-dawn press conference at the airport, where he was greeted by his overjoyed wife and senior Iranian officials. He addressed reporters with his tearfully happy and bewildered seven-year-old son sitting on his lap.

Before his disappearance, Mr Amiri worked at Tehran's Malek Ashtar University, an institution closely connected to the country's elite Revolutionary Guards and an important centre for nuclear research. Washington's prime goal "was to stage a new political and psychological game against Iran", Mr Amiri claimed. US media in recent months reported Mr Amiri had been an invaluable source of rare human intelligence on Iran's uranium enrichment programme.

Three months after his disappearance in June last year, the West blew the whistle on a secret enrichment plant under construction near the holy city of Qom. The revelation helped Washington win international backing for a fourth set of United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran. Whether Mr Amiri supplied intelligence on the facility remains a matter of heated speculation - as is the motive for his sudden return to Iran.

The Washington Post quoted unnamed US officials saying he may have left the US "out of concern that the Tehran government would harm his family". Mr Amiri denied this yesterday. "My family was completely free and they received financial support from the Iranian government." The publicity generated by the curious tale is likely to be a welcome distraction for the Iranian regime at a time when domestic protests are growing over the country's faltering economy and concern over the fall-out from international sanctions imposed over Tehran's nuclear programme.

Those sanctions will prevent Mr Amiri from cashing in on any alleged pay-off from the CIA. "Anything he got [financially] is now beyond his reach, thanks to the financial sanctions on Iran," an unnamed US official told the Post. "He's gone, but his money's not. We have his information, and the Iranians have him." The US never acknowledged Mr Amiri's presence on American soil until he dramatically turned up at the Iranian interests section at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington on Monday evening, seeking refuge and an immediate return to Tehran.

Yesterday, he repeated claims he made in the US earlier this week that he was "kidnapped by American and Saudi intelligence agents" in front of his hotel in the Saudi holy city of Medina while performing the Haj. He said he was then drugged and whisked to the US on a military aircraft. Riyadh, like Washington, has "deplored" Iranian accusations it played any role in his mysterious disappearance. American officials have yet to present evidence, such as a plane ticket or visa application, to confirm Mr Amiri arrived in the US through ordinary channels.

At the same time, Mr Amiri failed to explain how he escaped his "armed" CIA captors, but promised to provide more information at a later date. @Email:mtheodoulou@thenational.ae