Iranian nuclear scientist returns home to a hero's welcome

By Thomas Erdbrink and Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; 9:47 PM

TEHRAN -- An Iranian nuclear scientist at the center of a bizarre espionage drama arrived here to a hero's welcome Thursday morning, including a personal greeting from several senior government officials.

Shahram Amiri flashed victory signs to dozens of reporters as he stepped into Imam Khomeini International Airport, and his 7-year-old son broke down in tears as his father held him for the first time since Amiri disappeared in Saudi Arabia 14 months ago.

He was also greeted by Hassan Qashqavi, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official, as well as a deputy interior minister and a deputy science minister.

Iran's Arabic-language news channel Al Alam extensively covered the arrival, but it was not shown live on state television, which does not broadcast in the early morning.

Amiri's tale has dominated Iranian media since Monday night, when he surfaced in front of Iran's diplomatic mission in Washington and asked for a ticket back to his homeland. Amiri, 32, told officials that he had been abducted by U.S. intelligence operatives and had spent much of the past year in Tucson being questioned about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Amiri's reappearance was as mysterious as his disappearance and came just weeks after a series of Internet videos added to the intrigue surrounding the case. In the videos, Amiri claimed alternately to have been kidnapped by the CIA and to have come to this country on his own accord to pursue a PhD.

The case has emerged as a source of embarrassment for both governments. The Obama administration faced the departure of someone whose defection had been considered an intelligence coup. Iran described Amiri's desire to the leave the United States as a setback for American efforts, but Amiri may have compromised the secrecy of Iran's nuclear endeavors.

According to an official familiar with the account Amiri gave at the mission, his pleas to be released were finally granted when he was brought to Washington and sent to a nondescript storefront on Wisconsin Avenue, where Iranian representatives work in a space officially operated by Pakistan's embassy.

Within hours of arriving at the mission, Amiri told state-run Iranian television that "my kidnapping was a disgraceful act for America. . . . I was under enormous psychological pressure and supervision of armed agents in the past 14 months."

U.S. officials disputed Amiri's account, insisting that he defected voluntarily and provided valuable intelligence about Iran's nuclear program before increased worries over the safety of his family in Iran prompted him to seek a return. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters Tuesday that Amiri was and always had been free to go. "These are decisions that are his alone to make," Clinton said, noting that Iran has refused to release three American backpackers detained in the country for nearly a year.

Amiri's case has provided a rare public glimpse into the espionage sparring between the United States and Iran, much as the capture and swap of Russian undercover operatives this month exposed the extent to which such cloak-and-dagger endeavors have outlasted the Cold War. The United States and other nations contend that Iran is secretly developing the means to build a nuclear weapon, but the Iranian government says its program is entirely peaceful.

Amiri has said he worked at Iran's Malek-e-Ashtar Industrial University, which U.S. intelligence agencies believe is connected to the country's Revolutionary Guard Corps. Amiri is not believed to have been directly involved in the most secretive aspects of Iran's nuclear efforts, but intelligence officials said he provided significant insights during lengthy debriefings with the CIA.

"I don't think the U.S. government goes to great lengths to help people come over here unless there is significant intelligence value to be gained," said a U.S. official briefed on the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it.

Amiri disappeared under mysterious circumstances in June 2009, about the same time that U.S. officials spoke of an "intelligence coup" involving a high-profile defector.

He appears to have been resettled in Tucson, where his presence was a carefully guarded secret until the scientist appeared in videos this spring. In the first, which aired on Iranian television, Amiri stares into what appears to be an amateur Web camera, claiming to have been tortured and pleading for human rights organizations to intervene.

But in a subsequent and more polished video that U.S. officials said was crafted with help from the CIA, Amiri is dressed in a suit coat before a backdrop that includes a chessboard and a globe turned to the Western Hemisphere. Amiri says he has never betrayed his homeland and asks "everyone to stop presenting information that distorts the reality about me."

Amiri also says he knows that the Iranian government "will take care of and protect my family." U.S. officials said fears for their safety appear to have been behind his decisions to release the videos portraying himself as a kidnapping victim, as well as his effort to return.

"The Iranians aren't beyond using family to influence people," said a second U.S. official, who added that Amiri's ability to appear in the videos, as well as reach the Iranian mission, "gives the lie to the idea he was tortured or imprisoned. He can tell any story he wants -- but that won't make it true."

Defectors who return to their native countries risk severe reprisals. In one of the most notorious cases, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law defected to Jordan in the mid-1990s and began providing information on Iraq's banned weapons programs. He and his brother -- another Hussein son-in-law who had defected with him -- returned to Iraq after being promised that they would not be punished, but both were killed within days.

Amiri arrived at the Iranian mission at 6:30 p.m. Monday, officials said. Only a security guard was present, and the two spoke in Farsi. In meetings with Pakistani diplomats, Amiri said he had been drugged after stepping into a cab in Medina, Saudi Arabia, last summer and woke up in the United States. He said he wasn't physically abused but claimed to have endured severe "mental torture."

Erdbrink reported from Tehran. Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Tara Bahrampour and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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