Iran Blames U.S. in Disappearance of Scientist

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Iran's foreign minister on Wednesday accused the United States of being involved in the disappearance of an Iranian scientist with alleged links to Iran's nuclear program.

The charge comes less than a week after Iran reached tentative accords with the United States and other major powers on addressing questions about its nuclear ambitions, including letting international inspectors visit its newly disclosed uranium-enrichment site near Qom. The charge also comes as the United States has raised questions about Americans being held in Iran.

The scientist, Shahram Amiri, vanished during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia four months ago; Iran previously called on Saudi Arabia to help locate him. He is a researcher at Malek Ashtar University, which is connected to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and was listed by the European Union last year as an entity linked to Iran's nuclear activities or weapon delivery systems.

"We've obtained documents about U.S. involvement over Shahram Amiri's disappearance," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency. The official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Mottaki as saying, "We hold Saudi Arabia responsible for Shahram Amiri's situation and consider the U.S. to be involved in his arrest."

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, "We just basically don't have any information on this individual." He declined to say whether other U.S. government agencies might have knowledge of Amiri's whereabouts. "I can only speak for the State Department at this point," he said. The CIA declined to comment.

Unconfirmed reports have swirled that Amiri is also connected to the Qom facility. An Iranian news Web site, Jahan News, claimed that he had defected to the United States with information on the facility. The Saudi-owned Sharq al-Wasat newspaper reported him to be a nuclear scientist who worked at the Qom facility and said that he had taken refuge in Saudi Arabia, though the newspaper said his disappearance could not be connected to the revelations about the nuclear facility.

U.S. officials have said that they had been tracking the building of the facility for some time but that in July -- around the time Amiri is said to have disappeared -- President Obama ordered a detailed examination of all the evidence about the facility.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian analyst in Israel, said it was unusual for Iran to call attention to someone who went missing during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, given that the Foreign Ministry generally makes no comment on the several Iranians who do not return from pilgrimages. "Many people in Iran complain about the poor job the Foreign Ministry does in protecting their interests in Saudi Arabia," he said.

Early in the week, Javedanfar said, the Foreign Ministry seemed to deny that Amiri had any particular expertise in nuclear issues, but now the government is openly discussing his background. "I think they are becoming concerned that they may have another defection on their hands," he said.

In 2007, in what is thought to be a major coup for U.S. intelligence, former Iranian deputy defense minister Ali Reza Asgari defected to the West via Turkey.

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