July 15, 2010 / 11:46 AM / 10 years ago

Q+A-Iran's Amiri: A mix of fact, assertion, mystery

LONDON, July 15 (Reuters) - Iran and the United States have traded accusations over the mystery of an Iranian scientist who returned home saying he was abducted by CIA agents a year ago.

Follow are questions and answers separating what is known about nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri and his time in the United States from what is speculation or unconfirmed assertion.

WHAT HAPPENED ON HIS JUNE 2009 TRIP TO SAUDI ARABIA?

Fact: Amiri went missing during a religious pilgrimage.

Unconfirmed: Amiri said he was kidnapped and taken to the United States by the CIA. Iran accused Saudi Arabia of handing him over to the United States. The U.S. television network ABC reported Amiri had defected as part of a long-planned operation to get him to leave Iran and resettle in the United States.

Speculation: Nigel Inkster, of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies discounts the kidnapping theory. “It looks to me far more likely that he defected to the USA and then had second thoughts, for whatever reason.”

UK-based Iran commentator Mahan Abedin: “He was most likely the victim of an elaborate (U.S.) deception operation, the kernel of which involved promising him a dazzling career and access to all sorts of research facilities in the United States, facilities which are not to be found in Iran.”

WHAT DID HE DID DO IN THE UNITED STATES?

Fact: There is no agreed account of his activities.

Unconfirmed: Amiri says he was offered $50 million to remain in America and “spread lies” about Iran’s nuclear work, and was subjected to torture and psychological pressure. Held in Arizona, he was also questioned by Israeli agents, he says.

A U.S. official said on Wednesday the United States received useful information from Amiri. He was given a home in the U.S. state of Arizona as part of the CIA’s National Resettlement Program for defectors, the New York Times quoted a senior U.S. administration official as saying. The Washington Post said the CIA had paid Amiri $5 million for information on Iran’s nuclear work and had worked for the agency for more than a year.

WAS AMIRI A VALUABLE SOURCE ON IRAN’S NUCLEAR WORK?

Fact: Before his disappearance, Amiri worked at Iran’s Malek Ashtar University, an institution closely linked to the elite Revolutionary Guards, the powerful ideological wing of Iran’s military and accused by the West of being the driving force behind Iran’s nuclear programme. But there is no agreed assessment of Amiri’s insight into Iranian nuclear activity.

Assertion: Amiri says he had no valuable intelligence. “I am an ordinary researcher ... I have never made nuclear-related researches,” he said early on Thursday.

Speculation: Some analysts have noted that three months months after his disappearance, Iran revealed the existence of its second uranium enrichment site, near the central holy Shi’ite city of Qom, heightening tension over the Islamic state’s atomic activities. Others say there may be no necessary link between this development and Amiri.

London’s Exclusive Analysis intelligence consultancy: “The fact that the Americans are prepared to release him suggests that he wasn’t a very valuable source. If he had given valuable information, he would not have been allowed to leave.”

Abedin: Amiri was probably “not the kind of great catch that the CIA made him out to be earlier in the year. If he was, the agency would not let go of him so easily.”

WHY DID HE COME HOME?

Fact: There is no universally agreed explanation.

Assertion: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials said Amiri had been free to come and go. U.S. officials said he may have returned because of pressures on his family in Iran.

Amiri denied this, saying “my family had no problems.” In a video aired by Iranian state TV in June Amiri said he had fled from U.S. agents and was in hiding.

Speculation: Inkster said, “It looks as if after a full debrief he was put into a resettlement programme and this was when he had a change of heart — whether because of pressure put on his family is a matter for speculation.”

Abdein said the CIA may have learnt Amiri was not privy to a great amount of intelligence and subsequently the agency was less inclined “to cater to his every whim and fancy, thus making Amiri resentful at the shoddy treatment meted out to him.”

Or, he said, Amiri was genuinely remorseful at his actions, and a guilty conscience and extreme home sickness “made him more vulnerable to pressures by Iranian intelligence.”

WAS HE AN INTELLIGENCE PLANT BY IRAN?

Fact: This is entirely speculative.

Speculation: Washington Post columnist Jeff Stein says there may now be a suspicion Amiri was on an Iranian intelligence mission from the outset to try to elicit from U.S. debriefers what they knew about Iran, before re-defecting back to Iran.

Many analysts see this as unlikely.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO HIM NOW?

Fact: Amiri was warmly welcomed back in Tehran overnight.

Speculation: “Amiri will definitely be treated with a degree of suspicion and questioned for a long time,” Exclusive Analysis said in its commentary.

Stein said Iranian suspicions about Amiri would linger forever. But it would be in Iranian interests to treat Amiri well. “It would send a strong message to other Iranian defectors that the motherland will welcome them back into her arms.”

Abedin: “His videos are likely to make it very hard for the Iranian authorities to prosecute him. Nevertheless, revenge is most likely to be exacted on Mr Amiri, however in this case the proverbial dish would be served very cold indeed.” (Writing by William Maclean, Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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