An Iranian atomic scientist who purportedly defected to the United States last year and offered intelligence on Tehran's nuclear activities has departed for his home country, the New York Times reported today (see GSN, July 13).
Shahram Amiri "has left the United States for the Iranian capital," Iran's Press TV reported. A second state news outlet said the scientist was "heading toward Iran through a third country."
Amiri, 32, disappeared in May 2009 during a trip to Saudi Arabia. News reports in the United States said he had defected and was supporting CIA activities against Tehran's nuclear program, which Washington suspects is geared toward weapons development. Tehran maintained that Amiri was abducted; the government has denied harboring any military ambitions for its atomic activities.
U.S. officials said the scientist was useful in verifying suspicions about Iran's nuclear work. The radiation detection specialist had served as a safety supervisor at many the country's nuclear sites, but he lacked the seniority necessary within Iran's atomic program to hold insight into its most guarded secrets, one U.S. intelligence official said (Sanger/Yong, New York Times, July 14).
Still, one U.S. official with knowledge of the case suggested Amiri had worthwhile information to offer on the nation's nuclear work.
"I don't think the U.S. government goes to great lengths to help people come over here unless there is significant intelligence value to be gained," the official told the Washington Post (Miller/Erdbrink, Washington Post, July 14).
Amiri was believed to have provided the United States with information about a clandestine uranium enrichment facility under construction outside the Iranian city of Qum, Time magazine reported (see GSN, Sept. 25, 2009). Iran has since permitted international inspections of the site (Mark Thompson, Time, July 14).
The United States eventually assigned Amiri to a resettlement program intended to conceal his identity as a defector, the Times reported. Earlier this year, though, the scientist began expressing heightened anxiety about his family in Iran (Sanger/Yong, New York Times).
Tehran made threats to kill Amiri's wife and child if he did not return, an Iranian official confirmed to Newsweek. The Iranian government notified all nuclear and intelligence personnel of the threat in a bid to discourage other potential defectors, according to the magazine (Hosenball/Bahari, Newsweek, July 13).
“The Iranians are not above using relatives to try to influence people," a U.S. official told the Times.
In two homemade videos televised in Iran in recent weeks, Amiri recounted being kidnapped, interrogated and tortured by U.S. authorities before escaping. In another video, apparently produced with professional assistance, he said he was safe and studying in the United States.
This week, though, Amiri arrived at the Iran office in the Pakistani Embassy in Washington and demanded his repatriation.
“Analysts say U.S. intelligence officials decided to release Amiri after they failed to advance their propaganda campaign against Iran’s nuclear program via fabricating interviews with the Iranian national,” Press TV stated (Sanger/Yong, New York Times).
"My abduction is a detailed story," Amiri told Press TV, according to Agence France-Presse. "When I am hopefully in my dear country Iran, I can speak to the media and my own people with ease of mind and tell them about my ordeal over the past 14 months, incidents that have been a mystery to many" (Agence France-Presse I/Spacewar.com, July 14).
U.S. officials dismissed assertions that the scientist was forcibly detained and held against his will.
“Amiri’s actions -- his multiple videos and now his trip to the Iranian-interests section -- clearly prove he was not held in the United States against his will,” a U.S. official with knowledge of the matter told Newsweek. “He came to this country freely; he lived here freely, and he has chosen freely to return to Iran. The United States, to be sure, isn’t standing in his way.”
“He himself gives the lie to the idea he was tortured or imprisoned. He can tell any story he wants -- but that won’t make it true,” the official said (Hosenball/Bahari, Newsweek).
In Washington's first official admission of Amiri's presence in the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the scientist had come to the country "of his own free will."
“He’s free to go,” Clinton said. “He was free to come. Those decisions are his alone to make” (Sanger/Yong, New York Times).
The scientist probably disclosed any sensitive nuclear information he could offer the U.S. government before departing, Newsweek quoted U.S. officials as saying (Hosenball/Bahari, Newsweek).
Tehran indicated it would withhold judgment of Amiri's actions for the time being, AFP reported.
He will explain "what has happened over these past two years, and afterwards we will see if he will be considered a hero," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said. "With more information, we will take a detailed look at this affair, and we are reserving all legal rights" (Agence France-Presse II/Spacewar.com, July 14).
Meanwhile, a number of firms on the Isle of Man -- a sovereign island territory overseen by the United Kingdom -- have been taking ownership of vessels from an Iranian company under punitive sanctions, raising concerns the companies could be helping Tehran to circumvent international nuclear penalties, the BBC reported.
Marine consultant Nigel Malpass oversees the island firms in conjunction with Ahmad Sarkandi, a high-level administrator with the sanctioned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines. In released remarks, Malpass denied involvement in any illicit dealings.
Island lawmakers in June raised concerns about the ship transfers, but the fears were brushed off by top territory official Tony Brown.
"We have to be realistic we can't do any more, we shouldn't be expected to do any more," Brown said. "Why should we shut down legitimate businesses ... we shouldn't be expected to take action the rest of the world won't" (Allan Urry, BBC News, July 14).
Elsewhere, Iran and Russia today inked an energy cooperation "road map" and called for natural gas and oil trade, Reuters reported.
"Sanctions will not hinder us in our joint cooperation," Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko said, adding that companies in his country could sell refined petroleum products to Iran (Jessica Bachman, Reuters, July 14).
Washington urged New Delhi on Monday to curb its economic ties with Tehran, The Hindu reported.
The United States has “made clear in conversations with many countries ... (that there) cannot be a situation of business as usual,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. “Every country obviously pursues its own self-interest of its citizens. We understand that. By the same token, all countries have international obligations to fully respect and to heed the sanctions [against Iran] that were passed by the Security Council last month” (Narayan Lakshman, The Hindu, July 14).