This we know: Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri has taken refuge at the Pakistani embassy in Washington and plans to return to his homeland – and the US plans to let him go. The State Department confirmed that Tuesday morning.
But there’s much we don’t know about Mr. Amiri and the circumstances that brought him to the United States or what is compelling his quick exit. We don’t know whether this trip back to Iran constitutes an escape from US agents who may or may not have kidnapped him. Or is this a redefection to a country he fled on his own volition. Is it some mixture of the two possibilities?
Intelligence work is shadowy, and the US effort to ascertain what’s up with the Iranian nuclear program is a particularly complex department of mysteries.
Amiri disappeared while on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June 2009. Iran has long charged that he was kidnapped by the US or its allies.
The US has denied it. In March, US media reported that Amiri had defected to the US and was talking about Iran’s nuclear secrets.
Adding to the confusion are two videos posted on the Internet, both of which purport to depict Amiri. In one, he says he was kidnapped by Saudi and US agents and taken to the US. In another, he says he left of his own free will and was studying for further degrees in the US.
To go much beyond these facts is to engage in speculation. That said, here are three possible explanations to Amiri’s predicament:
• Amiri has almost certainly been interviewed extensively by US intelligence.
This may be obvious, but whether he came to the US on his own, or was brought forcibly, his presence would not be ignored. US intelligence has probably obtained, or tried to obtain, everything he knows about Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran will know this, and must assume that everything Amiri knows, the US knows too, even if the scientist insists he told nothing. That means Iranian authorities may have to act on the assumption that some of their program’s secrets have been compromised. That is the context to which Amiri will return.
• Defectors do redefect, for their own reasons.
Sometimes, they find that life on the other side of the line is not as great as they thought it was. Sometimes, they become homesick. Sometimes, they just go back, and no one knows why. Perhaps they were double agents to begin with. Perhaps their families were threatened.
One of the most well-known cases of this sort was that of Vitaly Yurchenko, a KGB spy who had defected to the US. In 1985, he escaped his CIA minder at Au Pied du Cochon, a bistro-like French restaurant in Georgetown, and returned to the Soviet Union, probably by the simple expedient of walking up Wisconsin Avenue about three-quarters of a mile to the Soviet embassy complex.
• The Iranian nuclear program has had some important secrets exposed.
Last year, for instance, the Iranian government was forced to admit that it was constructing a secret nuclear enrichment facility at Qom. Earlier this year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggested in a report that the Iranians may be actively seeking to develop nuclear weapons knowledge.
However, it is far from clear what, if anything, Amiri has told the west. The IAEA has said that its knowledge of the Iranian program comes from multiple sources.
Amiri “knew something about nuclear weaponization,” says David Albright, a nuclear proliferation expert and president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
Still, Amiri’s flight to the Pakistani embassy and its Iranian interests section is a difficult situation for the US. Allowing him free passage is really the only American option.
“He has been in the United States of his own free will and obviously he is free to go,” said State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley. “In fact, he was scheduled to travel to Iran yesterday but was unable to make all the necessary arrangements to reach Iran through transit countries.”
Mr. Crowley contrasted this freedom of movement with the captivity of three US hikers now being held in Iran.
“We obviously continue to be mindful to the fact that we have the three hikers in custody without charge in Iran,” said Crowley. “Obviously they are there against their own free will.”
Even when he goes, the mystery surrounding Amiri and the circumstances that brought him to the US are sure to linger long after he leaves.
“Half the world is going to believe the US is lying,” says Mr. Albright. “The other half is going to look at this and wonder how they messed up handling this guy.”