Was Iranian defector a double agent?

Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist, disappeared in May 2009 and recently resurfaced at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., claiming to have been kidnapped and tortured by the CIA.

American intelligence can’t catch a break, said The Economist. “Just as America’s spy catchers were basking in glory” after busting a Russian sleeper ring, along comes an Iranian scientist who at minimum was a valuable intelligence source who got away and at worst was a double agent who duped his CIA handlers. Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist, disappeared in May 2009 during a pilgrimage to the holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia. Last week, he turned up at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., which represents Iranian interests in the U.S., saying he’d been kidnapped and tortured by the CIA and wanted to return to Iran. Washington claims that Amiri was a “willing defector” who gave the CIA important information about Iran’s nuclear programs and then “returned home at his own wish.” But it all looks rather odd. Last month, a year after Amiri had disappeared, Iranian television broadcast a video purportedly made by Amiri at an Internet cafe in Tucson in which he claimed to have been abducted by U.S. and Saudi agents. In a much slicker video released on YouTube shortly afterward, he said he was in the U.S. of his own free will, studying for a doctoral degree. Then, in a third video, he said he’d been forced to make the second one.

Amiri was almost certainly a double agent working for Iran all along, said Gareth Porter in the Asia Times. U.S. officials are now claiming that the scientist was a longtime agent for the U.S. who’d funneled secrets to them for years. But had that been true, the CIA would have arranged for his wife and young son to accompany him to America. In fact, the lengths to which the U.S. is going to portray Amiri as a long-standing U.S. spy simply cast doubt on the story’s legitimacy. Numerous American newspapers and TV newscasts have been quoting unnamed U.S. officials as insisting that Amiri was a valuable source for everything from the discovery of a new Iranian nuclear site at Qom to the pinpointing of an Iranian university as the center of nuclear research. “In the arcane world of spying, those claims wouldn’t have been leaked to the media unless the CIA believed Amiri was working for the other side.”

That’s a “wildly imaginative” theory, said Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed in the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat. It’s true that the CIA has been duped by double agents in the past—most recently by a Jordanian al Qaida militant who blew himself up at an Afghan CIA base, killing seven U.S. agents. But the idea that Amiri was sent to America on purpose to spread disinformation is simply far-fetched. “Sometimes the truth is much simpler than all of this—let us recall that Amiri is only 32 years old.” Like many young scientists, he is probably “politically naïve.” It’s likely that he was “tricked by the Americans” into defecting and then “had a change of heart.”

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Let’s see what happens to him now that he’s back in Iran, said Philip Sherwell and William Lowther in the London Sunday Telegraph. If he disappears or goes to prison, that would prove he was a real defector who came back out of fear that the Iranian regime would punish his wife and child for his treason. Of course, even if he was a traitor, the regime might still decide “to carry on the fiction—for propaganda purposes—that he was the victim of a CIA plot.” For now, all that’s clear is that Amiri is “the center of a propaganda war.”

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