U.S. paid Iranian nuclear scientist $5 million for aid to CIA, officials say
Thursday, July 15, 2010
The Iranian nuclear scientist who claimed to have been abducted by the CIA before departing for his homeland Wednesday 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. Officials said he might have left out of concern that the Tehran government would harm his family.
"Anything he got is now beyond his reach, thanks to the financial sanctions on Iran," a U.S. official said. "He's gone, but his money's not. We have his information, and the Iranians have him."
Amiri arrived in Tehran early Thursday to a hero's welcome, including personal greetings from several senior government officials. His 7-year-old son broke down in tears as Amiri held him for the first time since his mysterious disappearance in Saudi Arabia 14 months ago.
In brief remarks, Amiri told reporters, "I am so happy to be back in the Islamic republic," and he repeated his claims of having been abducted by U.S. agents. He said CIA agents had tried to pressure him into making propaganda against his homeland and offered him $50 million to remain in the United States.
Amiri also said that he knew little of Iran's main nuclear enrichment site. "I'm a simple researcher. A normal person would know more about Natanz than me."
Amiri's request this week to be sent home stunned U.S. officials, who said he had been working with the CIA for more than a year.
Whether the agency received an adequate return on its investment in Amiri is difficult to assess. The size of the payment might offer some measure of the value of the information he shared. But it could also reflect a level of eagerness within the U.S. intelligence community for meaningful information on Iran.
The U.S. official said the payments reflected the value of the information gleaned. "The support is keyed to what the person's done, including how their material has checked out over time," said the official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding the case. "You don't give something for nothing."
The transfer of millions of dollars into Amiri-controlled accounts also seems to bolster the U.S. government's assertions that Amiri was neither abducted nor brought to the United States against his will. Given the amount of money he was provided, a second U.S. official said, "I'm sure he could have been very happy here for a long time."
The payments are part of a clandestine CIA program referred to as the "brain drain." Its aim is to use incentives to induce scientists and other officials with information on Iran's nuclear program to defect.
The Iranian government maintains that its nuclear research is strictly for peaceful purposes. But the United States and other nations contend that Iran is secretly pursuing a nuclear bomb. Acquiring intelligence on the country's nuclear capabilities and intentions is among the highest priorities for U.S. spy agencies.