In Latest Videos, Nuclear Scientist Claims Heâ€™s Retuning to Iran; U.S. Says Heâ€™s Here on Own Will
By Matthew Cole
June 30, 2010 â€œABCâ€ — â€” The Iranian nuclear scientist in the middle of the high stakes battle between Washington and Tehran has released two new videos, claiming to have â€œescapedâ€ U.S. intelligence and says heâ€™s on his way back to Iran.
The scientist, Shahram Amiri, who, according to U.S. intelligence officials resettled in the U.S. last year after working for several years as a CIA spy, has claimed that he escaped â€œU.S. intelligence officers in Virginia.â€ He says he is now in a â€œsafe placeâ€ but that he is in â€œdanger and could possibly be arrested again by U.S. intelligence officers at any moment.â€
â€œIn case anything happens to me or if I do not make it back home safely, the responsibility will solely rest on the officials of the United States,â€ Amiri says in a video posted to YouTube, which says was recorded June 14.
A U.S. official tried today to quickly rebuke Amiriâ€™s claims.
â€œThe guyâ€™s ability to make and release messages is clear proof that he hasnâ€™t been held in the United States against his will, says that theoryâ€™s absurd. Thatâ€™s not the way it works we donâ€™t have to compel people to defect. Maybe heâ€™s just trying to build a story for the folks back home. The fact that he can say what he wants doesnâ€™t make his statements true. Heâ€™s shown to the world that he has the power to make choices even bad ones.â€
The latest video aired today on Iranian state television and continues the propaganda efforts of Tehran to show Amiri was kidnapped and brought to the U.S. against his will.
In fact, U.S. officials say, Amiri was a key CIA spy inside the Iranian nuclear weapons program and helped reverse the CIAâ€™s understanding of the Iranian program. According to one intelligence official briefed on the operation, Amiri directly contradicted the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Tehran had suspended their nuclear weapons program in 2003. Amiri, according to the official, proved to the Americans that the program had not been suspended.
CIA director Leon Panetta acknowledged this week to ABC News that the CIA no longer believed the conclusions of the 2007 NIE, saying that Tehran continues â€œto work on designsâ€ for a nuclear weapon.
â€œI think they continue to develop their know-how,â€ Panetta said. â€œThey continue to develop their nuclear capability.â€
Iran and Nuclear Weapons
Iranâ€™s nuclear ambitions have been the subject of international debate. The Obama administration recently called for increased U.N. sanctions. Amiri, once a star scientist for the Iranian nuclear program, according to U.S. officials, has become the center of efforts of both countries to characterize Iranâ€™s nuclear ambitions. Tehran has said that its nuclear program is for energy purposes only and denies ambitions for a nuclear weapon.
Both the Iranian intelligence agency and the CIA have posted dueling videos of the scientist in past several weeks. In one video, Amiri claims the U.S. kidnapped, drugged and tortured him, in the other he says he is happy to be in the U.S.
Behind the scenes, the situation has become so grave that American officials fear Amiri could re-defect, according to the people briefed on the situation. CIA officials pushed for Amiri to flee the country out of fear that his disclosures might have exposed him to Tehran as a spy.
Amiri vanished last June during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. The Iranian government claimed then that their scientist, a professor at Tehranâ€™s Malek Ashtar University, had been kidnapped by the CIA. In fact, say U.S. officials, the CIA, with the help of the Saudi government, whisked Amiri to the U.S., where he was to permanently resettle.
A few months after Amiri arrived, the Obama Administration announced that U.S. intelligence had discovered a second, hidden nuclear enrichment facility in the Iranian city of Qom.
Both the CIA and the White House have refused to comment on Amiri.
Complicating the defection is the fact that he left behind a wife and child. Since arriving in the U.S., and being secluded in Arizona, U.S. officials say Amiri has struggled with his decision to flee Iran.
Then came the alleged threats by Iranian intelligence, which set off the bizarre battle of dueling videos that were released earlier this month. The first, which was broadcast on Iranian state television, shows Amiri speaking to a computer camera and announcing that the U.S. had drugged and kidnapped him and forced him to Tucson, Arizona.
He appeared to be looking down at a script as he spoke.
According to the two current U.S. officials, Amiri called home earlier this year because he missed his family. On a second call, Iranian intelligence answered and threatened to harm his son, unless he taped an internet video saying heâ€™d been kidnapped. Amiri, fearing for his family, agreed, according to a person briefed on the case.
â€œHe missed his son,â€ said the person. â€œAnd he couldnâ€™t help calling home to speak to him.â€
Within days, the CIA learned that Amiri had given the Iranians a video and moved quickly to produce a version of its own. The second video shows Amiri well-dressed and manicured with a globe – turned to North America – and chess set behind him as he appears to read from a teleprompter. He says, in Farsi, that he is happily living in the U.S. and going to school. He also denied having worked in the Iranian nuclear program and made a plea to his wife and son. â€œI want them to know that I never abandoned then, and that I will always love them.â€
According to one U.S. official, the CIA intended to produce the video and launch it on the internet before the Iranians had a chance to air their version.
Instead, the video languished at CIA headquarters for weeks, according to a senior intelligence official. Then, earlier this month, Iranian state television aired the Amiri video. Within a day, the CIA posted their Amiri video on YouTube, with a user identification of â€œshahramamiri2010.â€
The Iranian government has since formally requested the U.S. government to return Amiri, accusing the Americans of holding him against his will. A spokesperson for the State department has acknowledged that the U.S. government has received the request, but has had no further comment.