Accessibility links

Intrigue, But Few Facts, Surround Iranian Scientist

The case of Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri is what counter-intelligence officers like to call a "wilderness of mirrors."

Facts are slim.

Depending on which version you read - and there are multiple ones - Amiri was kidnapped by U.S. intelligence agents a year ago while on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, defected to the United States of his own free will, or simply decided to disappear for a while. The confusion was heightened when three different videos surfaced, all featuring a man who appeared to be Amiri, making different claim: that he had been kidnapped, that he was living freely in Arizona, and that he had escaped from U.S. custody.

The mystery deepened Tuesday when he suddenly appeared at the Iranian Interests Section of the Pakistan Embassy, saying that he wanted to go home. Iranian media say he was "handed over" to the Interests Section by U.S. officials.

For its part, U.S. officials say he was not kidnapped, not held against his will, not tortured, was living here freely, and has freely chosen to return to Iran,

So how did he get here? What was he doing here? Good questions, but ones U.S. officials are not answering.

Some reports say he defected and was giving the U.S. valuable information about Iran's nuclear program. But some former intelligence officers say he might have been a false defector.

It has happened before.

In 1985 Soviet intelligence officer Vitaly Yurchenko defected to the U.S. while on assignment to Rome. He gave his debriefers what appeared to be valuable intelligence, including the names of two American intelligence officers on Moscow's payroll. But he was a fake. Within several months he walked away from the CIA handlers during dinner at a Washington restaurant and the Soviet Embassy subsequently announced he had re-defected. Yurchenko reappeared in Moscow and was given a medal.

So it is possible, according to some analysts, that Amiri was a false defector, dangled like bait in front of the CIA. A fake defector would hope to glean from his interrogators' questions some measure of what the U.S. knows or does not know about Iran's nuclear program.

Counter-intelligence officers say running a fake defection is very tricky. The defector has to give up enough substantive true information to convince his interrogators that he is genuine, just as Yurchenko gave up the names of two very real Soviet agents. (One was caught, the other escaped). More than one analyst has compared the whole business to a game of chess in which you sacrifice a couple of lesser pieces in order to save your queen or king. So Amiri would have had to give up some verifiable information about Iran's nuclear program.

On the other side, the interrogators have to question carefully and view skeptically. There were divisions between the CIA and the Pentagon over the credibility of defectors purporting to know inside information about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. In fact, it turned out that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, leading some analysts to conclude that the U.S. had been deliberately misled by fake defectors sent by Saddam Hussein.

Could Amiri have been sent by Iran's leadership to dupe U.S. policymakers about Iran's nuclear program? It is one possible scenario. But neither Washington nor Tehran is talking.