I don't purport to suggest that Shahram Amiri or the Iranian intelligence services read my July 13 Op Ed (in which I posed ten questions following Amiri's public surfacing in the U.S.) and then rushed to respond. That said, Amiri's July 15 appearance on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting's public television offered some answers, while simultaneously giving rise to daunting new questions.
First, a recap: On July 13 I wrote, "Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist, went missing in May 2009 during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Other than the fact that Amiri subsequently resurfaced in the U.S., almost everything else in the espionage-thriller style case is disputed publicly. The barrage of information offered during the past 5 weeks makes it difficult to distinguish between genuine information, disinformation and spins.
"On June 8, 2010, in a video clip broadcast on Iranian state media, a man claiming to be Amiri said he had been kidnapped by CIA agents during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in 2009. 'They took me to a house located somewhere that I didn't know. They gave me an anesthetic injection,' he said in the video. He then said that he was living in Tucson, Arizona, and had been subjected to eight months of 'the most severe tortures and psychological pressures.'
"On the same day, a different video clip was posted on YouTube, appearing to have been recorded by the same person, completely contradicting the version offered in the previous video. In the second video, the person claimed to be in the United States voluntarily to continue his education, 'I am free here and I assure everyone that I am safe.'
"In a third video broadcast on Iran state TV on June 29, 2010, a man appearing to be Dr. Amiri said, 'I, Shahram Amiri, am a national of the Islamic Republic of Iran and a few minutes ago I succeeded in escaping U.S. security agents in Virginia. Presently, I am producing this video in a safe place. I could be re-arrested at any time.'"
Then on July 13 at 6:30pm, Amiri walked into the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, which hosts the Iran interests section, since Iran has no diplomatic ties with the U.S., and asked to return to Iran. Shortly thereafter, he flew back to Tehran unhindered.
Below are some of my original questions along with relevant statements from Amiri, as quoted by the NY Times and by Iranian Press TV, followed by new intriguing questions that Amiri's statements raise.
2. If the person is indeed Dr. Amiri, how did he manage to escape? Wasn't he being held in a safe, escape-proof environment guarded by U.S. intelligence community agents? Did he have outside or inside help?
Amiri said in his most recent interview that CIA and FBI agents had stormed his house in Tucson, Arizona, after he posted his first video message on the Internet. He also said that he was moved to that house, which had more comfortable residential surroundings than his military place of custody.
Amiri's statement is a strong admission that recently, he lived freely in the U.S. This supports the U.S. position and undermines Amiri's claim that he was in custody when he allegedly managed to escape. His new account on Iranian TV sounds more like a tale taken directly from A Thousand and One Nights, the roots of which are in ancient Arabic and Persian folklore. Why did he offer such an implausible explanation? Did he invent it or was the script written for him by the Iranian security services?
The statement is also incredible. In the first June 8 video, Amiri said he had managed to escape, and yet now he claims that he was in a house stormed by the CIA and FBI. Was it the house they provided him with? If so, why did he claim to have escaped if he was still in the house? Was it a new house traced by the CIA and FBI? If so, it's hard to believe that, aside from forcing him to record another video in which he assures that he came to the U.S. voluntarily, the CIA and FBI just walked away. After all, they knew of Amiri's intention to return to Iran and propagate the 'captive' story, per his video.
3. How did Dr. Amiri know to contact and identify his supporters? How did they know to contact and identify him? Was there a pre-arranged procedure of contact, which may support the sham defection theory?
This question remains mostly unanswered. However, in his Iranian TV interview, Amiri said, "In reality, our country's intelligence services were able to contact me and they provided me with the necessary facilities to make my first film."
6. In the third video he said that he had escaped a few minutes earlier. If his claim is true, then it means that Dr. Amiri was moved to an Iranian "safe house" in Virginia not far from the location where he was being held by U.S. agents. Who prepared and maintained that "safe house?"
According to the most recent version of the story, perhaps the Iranian agents he alleges helped him moved him to a safe house. Does Amiri think that the CIA and FBI agents involved would ever have let him return to Iran before they discovered and arrested any such Iranian agents? And since Amiri was allowed to board a plane back to Iran without interruption, perhaps his story about Iranian intelligence services helping him in the U.S. is yet another tale?
8. Who filmed/made the videos in which Dr. Amiri claimed to have been kidnapped?
Amiri said in the interview that after further contact with Iranian agents, he was able to hold a brief video conversation with his wife, which gave him "complete confidence" in the Iranian authorities and the well-being of his family.
Amiri did not disclose from what location he was able to hold the video conference call with his wife, however he seems to suggest that he was concerned about how the Iranian security service would treat him if he returned.
Why should he worry? He claimed that he was abducted and managed to escape. Wouldn't that guarantee him a hero's welcome? Or maybe Amiri correctly feared that his tale would be met with suspicion back home? When Amiri decided to return, he didn't realize that trouble would come so soon. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in a press conference in Tehran on Thursday that the "details of his abduction will be clarified after an investigation." These words should put the fear of God in Amiri. Indeed, if the U.S. account is true, Amiri should start counting his days to a fateful meeting with an Iranian executioner.
Two final notes and one suggestion: When Amiri disappeared, Iranian media described him as a nuclear scientist. However when he returned to Iran, he was referred to by Iran as an "academic" or "researcher." Is this a concerted effort to belittle Amiri's status and his access to confidential information on Iran's nuclear plans? Seems so: "Shahram Amiri is not a nuclear scientist and we reject it," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi told reporters at Imam Khomeini Airport, adding that he is a researcher in one of the universities in Iran.
Amiri said that the U.S. had offered to swap him for the three Americans, Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, who were arrested in the western Iranian city of Marivan for illegal entry into the country in July 2009. Iranian Press TV said that officials in Iran had dismissed the proposed swap. This sounds like another Iranian attempt to show that Amiri was a captive, not an asylum seeker.
Amiri said that the United States arranged for him to attend a university in Virginia and supplied him with a driver's license and a Social Security number, even though, he said, he had not requested either document.
Perhaps the U.S. should release copies of Amiri's various applications with his signature on them. If these are available, it would be interesting to hear Amiri's explanation, if he's available for comment.