By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - United States officials are explaining Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri's return to Iran as the result of a defector having a change of heart because of his concern about Iranian government threats to his family. Iran and Amiri himself have insisted that it is a simple case of a victim of abduction escaping his captors.
But several features of the story of Amiri's defection suggest that Amiri may have been acting on Iranian government orders to defect temporarily in order to embarrass the US government.
Amiri resurfaced only last month after having disappeared from Saudi Arabia during a pilgrimage in June 2009. He made two seemingly contradictory videos that appeared within hours of one another, the first charging that the US had kidnapped him and taken him to the US against his will, the second saying he was living in the US freely to continue his education.
That mystery remained unresolved when Amiri turned up at the Pakistani Embassy in New York on Monday evening and said he wanted to return to Iran, which he did on Thursday.
One indication that intelligence officials are now considering the real possibility that Amiri's defection was not genuine is that questions are being raised about how the contact was made with Amiri in the first place.
ABC news had reported on March 31 that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had approached Amiri through an intermediary and offered resettlement to the United States. But the Washington Post's David Ignatius, who is extraordinarily well connected with CIA officials, suggested in a column on Wednesday that Amiri had contacted the agency first and "may have been a virtual walk-in".
That means Amiri contacted the agency through the Internet - normally a danger signal for a "defector" who is still a government agent.
Ignatius also notes another "mystery" about the Iranian scientist now apparently being discussed in intelligence circles: "Why he decided to defect without his young wife and child, leaving them - and himself - vulnerable to Iranian pressure."
The normal practice would be for the agency to arrange for the entire family of a defector to accompany the asset. But Ignatius notes that Amiri chose to leave his family in Tehran, which should have been another danger sign for the CIA.
Yet another indicator that US intelligence officials suspected that Amiri's defection was a deception is how far they have gone to portray him as a long-time US intelligence agent.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that a US official had claimed Amiri was paid US$5 million for valuable intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.
A June 28 ABC news story went much further, quoting US intelligence officials as claiming that Amiri had been a spy for the CIA on Iran's nuclear program for several years. The sources claimed the CIA had urged him to flee Iran last year "out of fear that his disclosures might expose him to Tehran as a spy". ABC news repeated that same assertion in its July 13 story on Amiri returning to Iran.
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, according to a former intelligence official. "This is the pattern of a double agent," said the former official. "Nothing else makes any sense."
Other information that has now emerged about Amiri suggests that the story that he was a long-term CIA asset was a falsehood aimed at sowing distrust of Amiri in Tehran.
At age 32, Amiri is a very junior scientist who could not have had information about such issues as plans for a nuclear facility at Qom, even if he were working for the nuclear program.
The Post story acknowledges that the scientist "is not believed to have had direct access to Iran's most sensitive nuclear sites or leaders involved in decisions on whether to pursue a bomb".
Both the Iranian Foreign Ministry and Amiri's wife have said he was a specialist on radioisotopes for medical purposes, which would mean that he probably had no knowledge of the nuclear program of any value to US intelligence.
Amiri's behavior this spring appears to reflect an interest in demonstrating to the world that the US government was intent on disseminating falsehoods about an alleged Iranian push for nuclear weapons.
In early April, Amiri recorded a video in which he claimed to have been kidnapped and held against his will, which was sent to Iran for broadcast. A central point of the video, however, was his claim that the real objective of the US was to get him to say in a televised interview that he was an important figure in the nuclear program and that he had brought "very important documents on a laptop with classified information on Iran's military nuclear program".
When that video was broadcast on Iranian state television on June 8, it was followed within hours by the posting of another video of Amiri seeming to deny his previous statements. The second video had obviously been produced by the CIA well in advance.
That sequence of events indicates that Amiri's CIA handlers had learned weeks before that he was already intending to return to Iran, and insisted that he do a video in which he would admit that he was in the US of his own volition.
Amiri agreed to make such a statement on camera, knowing that the CIA would post it on YouTube if and when a video claiming he was abducted was posted. But he also insisted on including a statement implying that leaks to the press indicating that he had given valuable intelligence to the CIA on Iran's nuclear program were false.
In the CIA-sponsored video, Amiri says, "I am free here and assure everyone that I am safe." But he also calls for an end to "information that distorts the reality about me" and says, "I am not involved in weapons research and have no experience and knowledge in this field."
He may have been referring to a Washington Post report on April 25 that he had provided "details about sensitive programs, including a long-hidden enrichment plant near the city of Qom" and an ABC report on March 31 that he had "helped confirm US intelligence assessments about the Iranian nuclear program".
Even before Amiri posted yet another video portraying himself as a kidnap victim on June 30, US intelligence officials apparently suspected they had been duped by him and retaliated by leaking the story that Amiri had been a long-term CIA intelligence asset in Iran.
The CIA's eagerness to claim an intelligence coup on Iran's nuclear program appears to have set the agency up for the Amiri defection scheme. They viewed his affiliation with Malek-e-Ashtar Industrial University, which has connections to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as evidence that he must be linked to the assumed Iranian plans for a "nuclear weapons capability".
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy.....
By Mahan Abedin
More than 10 days after his return to Iran, Shahram Amiri remains an enigma with many wondering whether he was "kidnapped" by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as he now claims, or whether he was a spy who got cold feet, or even whether he was an Iranian "double-agent" from the very outset.
After a lengthy investigation involving interviews and conversations with scores of knowledgeable sources in Iran, Asia Times Online can now reveal some of the essential background features of the case.
However, the central question, namely what happened in Saudi Arabia in late May and June 2009 remains unresolved. Aside from Amiri, the only people who are privy to the full truth is a small circle of Iranian and American intelligence officers, and it is highly unlikely they will ever part with their secrets.
With the stakes so high and an apparently minor defection leaving such a profound impact on the already intensely idiosyncratic Iranian-American relationship, the full details of this case may never be revealed to the global public.
Immediately after Amiri touched down on Iranian soil this month, the Iranian public relations campaign kicked into an even higher gear, depicting his return as the third success at the expense of the CIA in recent months. The first success being the capture of Jundallah terrorist leader Abdulmalik Rigi in February and the second the freeing of a kidnapped Iranian diplomat in northwest Pakistan in late March.
While the official Iranian line leaves a lot to be desired and is geared foremost to achieving public relations and propaganda goals, it is the American - and more specifically CIA version - that is most contradictory and unbelievable.
Earlier in the year, CIA officials, keen to counter Iranian claims that Amiri had been kidnapped in Saudi Arabia in late May while performing the hajj (pilgrimage) , tried to present Amiri as a major defector using their contacts in the American and international media. These allegations sit uneasily with verifiable information that Amiri was neither an official nor had access to classified information. Even the CIA now appears to admit that Amiri did not have access to extraordinary secrets.
The second major CIA blunder came in early June 2010 when the agency reacted to a webcam recording broadcast on Iranian TV in which Amiri claimed he was in Tuscon, Arizona, following his "kidnapping" in Saudi Arabia in a joint operation by Saudi and American secret services.
The CIA quickly forced Amiri to make a counter-video in which he denied living under duress in the United States and expressed a desire to pursue his education in America. The artificial nature of the recording - with an uncomfortable Amiri clearly reading from a script - shows the CIA in the worst possible light.
It was clear then that this case, quite aside from its intricate intelligence dimension, was now essentially a propaganda duel between the CIA and Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), with the latter sprinting to the finishing line in what would soon prove to be an undisputed and dramatic victory.
Sure enough, Amiri made a third video (most likely at the behest and direction of the MOIS), shown on Iranian state TV in late June, in which he claims to have escaped from US security agents and was hiding in a safe place.
While Amiri does not explain how he had managed to escape the clutches of the CIA, this third and final video made a total mockery of the CIA-produced video and is a clear indication that the Americans had applied a degree of duress and coercion on Amiri.
Just exactly how Amiri came to make these videos, and more to the point how the MOIS was able to establish direct communication with him whilst he was under the ostensible control of the CIA, remains one of the most intriguing aspects of this case.
According to "knowledgeable" sources in Tehran, Amiri had not been subject to the strictest levels of security, with the CIA apparently housing him in relatively unsecured accommodation in Tuscon, Arizona. It appears that Amiri was left alone for prolonged periods without on-the-spot monitoring and supervision by CIA officers. This arrangement was a direct consequence of the agency determining that Amiri was of no significant intelligence value, thereby considerably eroding the incentive to impose strict security on his dwelling and movements.
But the CIA disinformation blunders came thick and fast once it became apparent that the MOIS had persuaded Amiri to return home. While some American officials were willing to admit that Amiri was not that important after all (if only to soften the blow of his departure), the dominant line from the agency was that he had provided significant "original" information and had been rewarded with a US$5 million payout.
To those familiar with the intelligence world, the CIA allegations come across as absurd fabrication. For if Amiri was indeed rewarded with $5 million, that would make him arguably one of the best-paid spies in history. Even Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer who betrayed some of the agency's most sensitive secrets in a 10-year period to the KGB and the post-Soviet SVR, and who was finally arrested in early 1994, made just over $2 million for his services to the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. Having surpassed the magic $1 million figure, Ames is regarded as one of the best-paid spies ever.
CIA officials also anonymously tipped off the media that Amiri had been recruited inside Iran and that he had assisted the agency for a number of years before using the opportunity presented while on the hajj in May 2009 to finally defect to the United States. Aside from their questionable propaganda value and the fact that they contradict other statements casting doubt on Amiri's usefulness, these statements are remarkably careless and unscrupulous inasmuch as they can be used as evidence against Amiri in any future espionage trial, irrespective of their accuracy.
Extensive defector program
CIA officials have repeatedly claimed to the media that Amiri's "defection" was part of an elaborate plan to encourage further defections from inside Iran's nuclear program. Some media reports have even named this secret program as the "brain drain" plan, which aims to both gather information on Iran's nuclear program and deprive the Iranians of capable human resources.
According to the CIA - as relayed by American and international media - intelligence garnered from human sources comprise the essential features of this program. Following interviews with knowledgeable sources in Tehran who are aware of this program, Asia Times Online is now in a position to dispute the CIA's claims.
According to these sources, Amiri was targeted by the Americans after an elaborate signals intelligence (SIGINT) operation involving the US National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain's secret eavesdropping center, the Cheltenham-based Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
While the Americans had come to learn of Amiri's position at the Malik Ashtar University of Technology by data-mining within the Iranian-American community in the US and obtained his mobile number through this method, virtually nothing else thereafter involved human sources.
Instead, the NSA (with some assistance from GCHQ) was able to develop an elaborate profile of Amiri by tapping his phone. This enabled the NSA to build up an exhaustive network of Amiri's contacts, some of which pointed to officials connected to Iran's nuclear program. It was likely at that point that the decision was made to approach Amiri directly to entice him to defect to the United States.
The assistance of GCHQ makes sense as it was the British who first fully developed the technique of mobile phone surveillance, not only to eavesdrop and gather intelligence but to map out the social network of a target, back in the mid- and late-1990s.
One of the earliest victims of this form of high-tech espionage was notorious south London gangster Kenneth Noye, who had fled to Spain after a road rage murder in 1996. Unable to track down Noye, who became infamous in the 1980s following the Brinks Mat robbery in 1983 and the subsequent killing of an undercover police officer, the police requested the help of GCHQ.
While the prolific use of SIGINT resources to track Iran's nuclear program comes as no surprise, the extent of the NSA's targeting of Iranian scientists and officials has had Iranian counter-intelligence deeply worried. Despite the deployment of counter-measures, such as banning the use of mobile phones by some highly-placed officials and scientists, it is distinctly possible that the Americans may try to lure other targets, in the same manner as Amiri.
This explains the fierce determination of the MOIS to win back the junior scientist, either by threats or inducements. While this successful interference with CIA post-defection programs is a clear blow to the agency's prestige, it remains to be seen whether it has had the desired effect of deterring potential defectors.
Amiri: Dead man walking?
It is an indicator of the serious divisions in security and judicial circles in Tehran that when Asia Times Online asked a source close to this story whether Amiri would be expelled from the Malik Ashtar University in the wake of this strange affair, that the reply was: "Currently the real debate centers on whether to expel him from this planet rather than from his university."
Indeed, the majority of people who spoke to Asia Times Online, including journalists, sources in the judiciary and people close to the security establishment, cast an element of doubt on the official version of events.
The main point of contention is exactly what happened in Saudi Arabia in late May and early June 2009. Prior to Amiri's return to Iran, informed sources were focused on constructing elaborate hypothesis from three basic scenarios:
The second and third scenarios are far and away the favorites, and sources close to the story have told Asia Times Online that Iranian intelligence has learnt that the Saudis played a much more proactive role in Amiri's "defection" than previously thought.
Moreover, while various scenarios have been put forward regarding the incentive offered to Amiri, it is safe to assume that the prospect of research opportunities and a solid career in the US would have held greater appeal to a scientist, than the offer of large sums of money.
Furthermore, there is one scenario that is being increasingly promoted by sources close to the Iranian government, namely that Amiri had been a double agent from the start. According to this scenario, Amiri was sent to the US to confuse the American government about Iran's capabilities in the nuclear sector and prepare the grounds for the humiliation of the CIA.
This scenario is unlikely for a simple reason: Iranian intelligence does not have the capability to deceive the core CIA by such an elaborate operation. While the MOIS dominates the intelligence landscape in the Middle East, it has neither the intelligence nor the cultural resources to deceive major Western agencies on their home soil.
Furthermore, while the MOIS has consistently deceived and defeated the outer layers of the CIA and broader American intelligence, it lacks the experience and capacity to successfully engage the core CIA in a bare-knuckle intelligence fight.
In any case, speculation about Amiri as a double agent inevitably opens up another and even more complex scenario; that Amiri may in fact be a triple agent, now working at the behest of the CIA inside Iran. Despite the fact intelligence agencies take great care to shroud their work in mystery, the truth is often more straightforward than it appears.
The widespread suspicion in Tehran is that Amiri has struck a deal with the MOIS that shields him from further investigation and eventual prosecution. This has caused serious divisions and is bitterly resented in particular by ideological supporters of the Islamic Republic who believe that it is judges and by extension the judicial system that is supreme, not secret intelligence agencies.
Accordingly, many believe that the only way for truth and justice to prevail in this case is for Amiri to either volunteer himself or be submitted to the revolutionary prosecutor where he can provide a full and honest account of his relationship with the CIA. If tried and convicted under charges of espionage on behalf of the United States, Amiri would be handed a mandatory death sentence, irrespective of his obvious cooperation with the MOIS.
This scenario does not appear to be realistic, at least not for the foreseeable future. The reality at present for many people within and outside the establishment is that despite being horrified by what they see as the transformation of a traitor to a hero, they appear to be unable to do anything about it.