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Videos deepen mystery over Iranian scientist who apparently defected to U.S.

By Joby Warrick and Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; A14

The apparent defection last year of an Iranian nuclear scientist with a presumed trove of secrets was hailed by U.S. officials as an "intelligence coup." Yet here was the same scientist appearing in a crude video this week saying he had been abducted and tortured.

And then popping up in a second video, retracting the story.

The dueling images, both aired on Iranian television and on multiple Web sites, have deepened the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Shahram Amiri, an Iranian health physicist who vanished last June while on a religious pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. After revealing little about the case, U.S. officials acknowledged this spring that Amiri had defected and had been resettled in the United States after extensive debriefing.

But a man claiming to be Amiri gave a sharply different account on Iranian television in what was billed as an "internet chat" recorded April 5. The dark-haired man, appearing unshaven and disheveled, said he was being held against his will in Tucson.

"I was kidnapped in a joint operation by the American intelligence, CIA terror and kidnap teams, and Saudi Arabia's Istikhbarat" spy service, the man said in a grainy video aired in Iran on Monday night. He said he had been drugged before being smuggled out of Saudi Arabia, adding that he had been subjected to "severe torture" and "psychological pressures."

On Wednesday, state television showed a second clip of the same man, now clean-shaven and wearing a suit, refuting the earlier claims. "I would like to urge everyone to stop presenting a distorted image of me," he says.

The videos prompted a formal diplomatic protest by Iran, and their prominence on Iranian TV fueled speculation that Iran is no longer considering a possible prisoner exchange that would lead to the release of three American hikers held in Iran since July.

The CIA has declined to comment on Amiri's whereabouts. A U.S. official familiar with the case scoffed at the notion that he had been kidnapped, noting that if Amiri were imprisoned, it would not be possible for him to make videos for Iranian television. "It's ridiculous to think the United States would have to compel anyone to defect and then force them to stay in this country," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details of the case remain secret. "That, to put it mildly, isn't a problem we've had."

A former intelligence officer who specialized in nuclear probes said the earlier video may have been an attempt by the defector to smooth things over at home.

"Assuming there is some truth to the fact that he cooperated with CIA, he is either having mental issues or he is just trying to make the Iranians go easier on friends and family of his still inside by pushing the story he left against his will," said Charles "Sam" Faddis, a retired CIA officer and author of several books on intelligence. He added: "Nobody kidnaps Iranian scientists and drags them against their will to the United States."

Erdbrink reported from Tehran.

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