"Reading Amiri in Tehran": Hero, Spy, or Kidnapped?

Upon his arrival to Tehran, Shahram Amiri, an Iranian junior scientist who claimed that he was kidnapped by the CIA in Saudi Arabia fourteen months ago, appeared on Iran's State TV claiming that the Americans had suggested he be swapped with the "three American spies" imprisoned in Tehran (referring to the three young American hikers).

Like much of U.S. public opinion, I believe that the American hikers, Shane, Sara and Josh, are by no means spies. In a conversation with the trios' lawyer, he told me that "there is nothing in their case but illegal entrance across the Iranian border." That's why Amiri's claim regarding the hikers along with a long list of other contradictions and ambiguities in his TV interview connote that he is basically playing into the hands of the Iranian intelligence service, thus perpetuating their narrative.

The fact is that the U.S. and Iran are in a "propaganda" war or a war of "words" or "rhetoric," or whatever you'd like to call it. In this struggle, both sides are trying to portray the other side's narrative of the events as false, dishonest and conspiracy oriented.

Many have speculated on Amiri's case over the past two weeks, from a kidnapped scientist to a double agent. With all due respect to the possible scenarios that have been put forth on this case thus far, I should say that from the beginning I believed that Shahram Amiri was like many other Iranians who, under the current social and political circumstances, or other personal and professional reasons, sought a way out of Iran. But months after his stay in the U.S. and after his name popped up in the media last January, the Iranian intelligence services used all of the means at their disposal to bring him back.

In his lengthy interview with the State TV, Amiri said that the Iranian intelligence services were engaged in a "very heavy intelligence war" with the U.S. to bring him back. He also said that the Iranian intelligence services provided him with the "proper equipment" to make the video that has been published on YouTube while still in the U.S.

In regards to speculation that Amiri may have been under pressure by the Iranian intelligence service to force him back to Iran, the scientist claimed that "there was no pressure" on his family while under the control of the CIA. This surprised the interviewer: "At the time you didn't have access to your family how did you know that there was no pressure on your family?" Amiri responded that he had connections with the security forces and knew that his family was fine.

(When the news came out on his decision to go back to Iran, I got a call from a very reliable source that told me Amiri's family has been under enormous pressure and is the main reason that he is going back to Iran.)

His remark when asked by the interviewer, "What is the outcome of the story?" was even more telling and fascinating. In response to this question he quoted Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and said, "Americans are like an empty drum," meaning that they make a lot of noise but they are hollow. He goes on to say: "I came to this conclusion that in an intelligence war, which is a war of intelligence not technology, the Islamic Republic of Iran overpowers the American intelligence service."

In fact, Amiri's analysis of the "outcome" of this story is exactly what the Iranian intelligence services wants the people in Iran, those who are on the verge of defection and the rest of the world to hear. This is exactly what the Iranian propaganda machine constantly claims; that militarily, economically, politically and culturally they are invulnerable.

The news by the Fars News Agency that Amiri "has provided valuable information about the CIA" and that his "stay in the United States was a plan by Iranian intelligence that worked to perfection" further perpetuates the narrative of Iranian government.

So why has the Iranian intelligence services pushed for his return and spun such an elaborate story to bring him back? In my opinion, there are a number of reasons:

First and foremost, I believe calling Amiri a kidnapped scientist or a double agent is a way of deeming the "defection temptation" an impossible option for Iranian scientists and officials.

By retrieving Amiri, the Iranian intelligence services is sending a strong signal to those who are on the verge of defection or leaving the country. Over the past many years there have been a number of Iranian officials who have left the country including Alireza Asgari, former Deputy Defense Minister, Hossein Mousavian, a former lead Iranian nuclear negotiator and at least four former members of Iranian parliament.

The Iranian intelligence is highly concerned about the rise of defection-departure of others in such sensitive fields as Iran's nuclear program, military or top political positions. Using techniques of intimidation and pressure on high-ranking officials might be very risky and politically costly for the Iranian intelligence, but it's quite plausible to use such tactics on a low-ranking, politically inexperienced person such as Amiri.

Using intimidation techniques, even to extremes, is not unprecedented in Iran. Seven years ago the authorities arrested Sina Motallebi, a prominent Iranian journalist, who spent many days in solitary confinement. Shortly after his release, he fled the country and began to write about his time in prison. In order to silence him, the authorities arrested his father, imprisoning him for weeks, showing that, even thousands of miles away, Iranian people like Sina who might speak out against the government are still extremely vulnerable. Similarly Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who spent three months in prison after the June 2009 presidential elections, describes beautifully how he was threatened by the Iranian intelligence (in this case the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence): "They told me 'don't think you will be safe once you leave the country... the IRGC has branches all over the world including Hamas and Hezbollah and we can always put you in a sack and bring you back'."

Secondly, the political department of the Iranian State TV is highly influenced by the Ministry of Intelligence. They have access inside the prisons and are a part of the orchestrated "forced confessions." Amiri's long interview with the State TV was more like an interrogation and gotcha journalism, revealing many holes in Amiri's story revealed by the number of smart questions asked by the interviewer. On the other hand you have Iran's Ministry of Defense and Makel Ashtar University (where Amiri worked) that are closely tied to the IRGC's intelligence service. After last year's presidential election, the IRGC intelligence service was promoted as it's own entity within the IRGC and is now called the Revolutionary Guard's Intelligence Organization. This entity parallels and often rivals the Ministry of Intelligence.

Amiri's story is an embarrassment for the new Revolutionary Guard's Intelligence Organization and colors them amateur-ish with regard to their dealings with political prisoners and security cases in comparison with the well-established Ministry of Intelligence. By bringing Amiri back to Iran by whatever means they've used and claiming victory, they attempt to clean up a sort of systematic and administrative failure that led to Amiri's departure or defection in the first place.

("Fars reported that Amiri provided the license plates of two CIA-owned vehicles as proof that he had infiltrated the spy agency. The plate numbers and the vehicle descriptions were published in the report." Really?)

In my opinion, by calling Amiri a "double-agent," the Fars News Agency, which is highly linked to the Revolutionary Guards' Intelligence, makes a sorry cleanup effort.

We don't know much about Amiri's interaction with the CIA yet. But on the PR side, the whole story shows the CIA's open arms for defected officials with valuable information. (If Amiri, who claimed not to have any information on Iran's nuclear program, was offered 5 million dollars by the CIA, just imagine how tempting it would be for someone in Iran with real information and sensitive intelligence to defect.)

Thirdly, in the framework of "war of words," it is all about how to frame and package a message or narrative. I've learned that such packaging actually works within a country where a government has a monopoly over their media.

Over the past months, the Iranian government, while intensely working to bring him back, has hammered Washington for kidnapping one of its citizens, making the story a human rights related case. They have made Amiri's case the cornerstone of their response to U.S. pressure on human rights issues and will likely remain their main talking point for a while.

The United States has recently stepped up pressure on Iran over its human rights record. For Tehran, the best defense is a strong offense, and hitting back at the US record and drumming up charges of US violations against Iranian citizens may be just enough of an disincentive for the US to move forward on this agenda.

Finally, beyond the ongoing "war of words" Amiri's story with the Iranian intelligence has just begun, and let's not forget what Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki said upon Amiri's arrival to Tehran that, "Iran will hold fire on whether to consider Amiri 'a hero' until it receives his account of claims that he was abducted."