Was Iranian Nuclear Scientist a Double Agent?

Keeping up with the spy games

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Alleged Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri has returned to Iran after 13 months in the U.S. It's still unclear what happened during his stay and why he returned home. We may never know the full truth, but several new reports point to the possibility that he was an Iranian double agent all along. Under this theory, Amiri would have faked his defection to the U.S. (or allowed himself to be abducted, depending on whose story you believe), where he either fed the U.S. false information or acquired information to send back to Iran or both. Here's what we know.

  • Why He Might Be a Double Agent PBS's Babak Sarfaraz considers the possibility that "his defection was fake and that Amiri was in fact tasked with the mission of acting like a genuine defector in order to embarrass Iran's adversaries, gain knowledge of their 'methods and techniques,' and score a noteworthy political and diplomatic victory. Already, hardline [Iranian] papers are touting it as a major 'intelligence coup' on their front pages. Though it is likely that Amiri divulged some state secrets to his interrogators -- as it is assumed he did concerning the Fordo nuclear plant -- if he was indeed a double agent, his superiors must have weighed the cost and benefits of his 'defection' and concluded that there was more to be gained by his going over to the other side than not. It is also possible that they suspected the West knew about Fordo already."
  • Hero's Welcome in Tehran The New York Times' William Yong reports, "An Iranian nuclear scientist who American officials say defected to the United States and then had second thoughts was given a hero's welcome when he returned to Tehran early Thursday morning. ... A wreath of flowers was placed around his neck as he was greeted at Imam Khomeini International Airport by family members, including his 7-year old son, red-eyed from crying, and a grinning Foreign Ministry official."
  • CIA Paid Amiri $5 Million The Washington Post's Greg Miller and Thomas Erdbrink report that he "was paid more than $5 million by the agency to provide intelligence on Iran's nuclear program, U.S. officials said. Shahram Amiri is not obligated to return the money but might be unable to access it after breaking off what U.S. officials described as significant cooperation with the CIA and abruptly returning to Iran."
  • Amiri Probably Didn't Just Change His Mind The official U.S. position is that Amiri defected, changed his mind, and returned home. PBS' Babak Sarfaraz dissents, "it is a very rare for defectors to return to their home countries; this is especially true of a brutal regime like the Islamic Republic, where a repatriated defector would likely face extensive, interrogation, torture, or even execution. (Saddam Husssein's son-in-law Hussein Kamel al-Majid, for instance, was executed after he returned to Iraq from Jordan.) The least that a lapsed defector could expect would be a lifetime of opprobrium and festering suspicions. Amiri, who has worked within the Iranian system for many years, would surely be aware of these perils."
  • Amiri's Ever-Changing Story The Iranian has made increasingly dramatic condemnations of the U.S. since he began his journey home. He first alleged that the CIA kidnapped him in Saudi Arabia. Later he said he had been "emotionally" but not physically tortured by the U.S. Now he claims that he was physically tortured by the U.S. and that Israel intelligence was somehow involved, the BBC reports. "Mr Amiri offered no evidence, but said he would eventually. 'I have some documents proving that I've not been free in the United States and have always been under the control of armed agents of US intelligence services.'"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.