WASHINGTON — An Iranian nuclear scientist who'd been missing for more than a year amid Iranian claims that the CIA had abducted him turned up at the Pakistani embassy in Washington on Tuesday and was preparing to return home, after providing what a U.S. official said was "useful information" about Iran's nuclear program.
Shahram Amiri disappeared in June last year while on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
His mysterious case became still odder Tuesday morning with the news that he was at the Iranian interests section of Pakistan's Embassy in Washington. Amiri had been "dropped off" there at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Abdul Basit, the spokesman for Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad, told McClatchy.
That same evening, a senior U.S. official, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, sent the word to Iran via Swiss diplomats that Amiri had been in the U.S. of his own free will and was free to go, the State Department said.
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Because Iran and the U.S. don't have diplomatic relations, Pakistan handles Iranian interests in the U.S., while Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran.
Iran has accused the U.S. government of abducting and mistreating Amiri, a charge that the scientist himself made in one of several contradictory homemade videos that were broadcast last month on state-run Iranian television.
Obama administration officials had denied kidnapping an Iranian scientist, but refused to comment on Amiri specifically until Tuesday.
"Mr. Amiri has been in the United States of his own free will and he is free to go," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters. "In fact, he was scheduled to travel to Iran yesterday but was unable to make all of the necessary arrangements to reach Iran through transit countries."
"In contrast," Clinton noted, Iran still hold three young American hikers who were detained last year along the Iran-Iraq border, and hasn't responded to U.S. requests for information about former FBI official Robert Levinson, missing in Iran since 2007.
White House and State Department spokesmen, however, said there were no plans for a prisoner swap along the lines of last week's spy exchange between the U.S. and Russia. Amiri was thought to be heading to Iran via the United Kingdom, U.S. officials said.
One U.S. official said that Amiri "had provided useful information" about Iran's nuclear program, which the U.S. charges is a covert effort to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. official declined to elaborate and couldn't be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Some reports have linked Amiri to last September's revelation of a covert Iranian uranium facility near the holy city of Qom, but nuclear expert David Albright said the scientist is believed to have provided "weaponization information" — that is, information on Iran's attempts to fashion highly-enriched uranium, the fuel for a nuclear weapon, into an operational nuclear warhead.
The Obama administration has quietly reversed the U.S. assessment, contained in a November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, that Iran had ceased nuclear weaponization work even while it continued uranium enrichment.
Much about Amiri's odyssey remains unconfirmed — including how he ended up in the U.S. and why he decided to return to his native Iran.
A second U.S. official suggested that Amiri had offered to provide the U.S. with information in return for asylum and had voluntarily left his family behind in Iran. After his family came under pressure from Iranian authorities, he apparently had second thoughts about the deal and made the videos in hopes of persuading Iranian authorities that he'd been abducted and taken to the U.S. against his will.
"The choice to come to this country, and who he brought with him, were his. He left his family behind, that was his choice, and he might have felt some pressure from back home later on. The Iranians are not above using relatives to try to influence people," said the U.S. official, who also requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
"Most of his videos, with their nonsense about kidnap and torture, look designed to burnish his image in Iran, to explain away what he was doing in this country," the official continued. "Now he thinks he can snow the goons in Tehran. He's taking a real chance. We'll see how persuasive he is, and what happens to him after the Iranians wring every possible propaganda benefit out of him."
"If he had anything to give the United States, he would have done so freely," the official said.
Should he return to Iran, Amiri will hope to avoid the fate of Hussein Kamel al Majid, a son-in-law of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein who defected to Jordan in 1995 and gave U.N. weapons inspectors details of Iraq's biological weapons program. Kamel, his brother and their wives were persuaded to return to Iraq with promises of clemency; once there, the brothers were killed.
Stiff economic sanctions have yet to persuade Iran to halt its suspected weapons program, and penetration of Iran's nuclear work and industrial sabotage are top White House priorities.
Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said Amiri's apparent re-defection could complicate that effort.
"It's embarrassing, because the United States wants to encourage these people to come out," he said. He added, "Questions have to come up, was he a double (agent)?"
Albright said that foreign scientists who defect to the West often find adjustment difficult. Their usefulness to intelligence agencies dwindles and the social standing they enjoyed in their native land is absent. "It's kind of a frustrating life," he said.
Amiri reportedly worked at Malek Ashtar University in Tehran, an institute with links to Iran's defense establishment. An organization known as FEDAT, the Defense Ministry's secret nuclear research and development unit, is across the street, according to Albright's institute.
A senior Pakistani government official said, however, that Amiri wasn't a top scientist in Iran and thus wasn't privy to highly sensitive information. The official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the news media, said Amiri was in good health and hadn't been mistreated. He said the Iranian interests section would prepare Amiri's papers, buy him a ticket and send him home.
Earlier this month, Iran handed a dossier of supposed proof that the which looks after American interests there.
The succession of videos that appeared on the internet have deepened the mystery surrounding the scientist's disappearance.
In the first video, a grainy message released June 7 by Iranian state television, Amiri said: "I was abducted on the 13th of Khordad 1388 (June 3, 2009) in a joint operation by terror and kidnap teams from the U.S. intelligence service CIA and Saudi Arabia's Istikhbarat (intelligence agency). I was kidnapped from the holy city of Medina."
In the second video, a much better-quality recording, Amiri was well-dressed and apparently relaxed. He contradicted his earlier statements, saying he was in the U.S. of his own free will to further his education. He also rejected "rumors" about his defection.
In a third video, seemingly made in a hurry, which aired on Iranian state television at the end of last month, Amiri claims to have escaped "U.S. intelligence officers in Virginia." He added that he remained in "danger and could possibly be arrested again by U.S. intelligence officers at any moment."
(Shah, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.)
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