The Iranian nuclear scientist who defected to the United States is thought to have worked on the Iran nuclear program at this suspected uranium-enrichment facility near Qom, Iran.

Iranian scientist defects: US covert ops hurt Iran nuclear program

The defection of Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri to the US shows that a long-running CIA covert program against the Iran nuclear program is working.

An Iranian nuclear scientist who disappeared while on a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia last year is reported to have defected to the United States and been briefing the CIA on Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

ABC News's report on Shahram Amiri is a rare public revelation on a long-running covert intelligence effort led by the United States.

Sources briefed on the continuing CIA operation told ABC that Mr. Amiri’s defection was “an intelligence coup” in American attempts to damage and better understand Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

“Amiri’s disappearance was part of a long-planned CIA operation to get him to defect,” ABC reported. “The CIA reportedly approached the scientist in Iran through an intermediary who made an offer of resettlement on behalf of the United States.” Amiri “helped confirm US intelligence assessments” about Iran’s nuclear work.

Iran has by now enough trained operators and scientists that it would be impossible to decapitate the program by persuading the leading scientists to defect or otherwise making them disappear,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “But in any fledgling nuclear weapons program, there are a small number of key scientists who can make the critical breakthroughs,” Mr. Fitzpatrick told the Monitor.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday said he wanted to quickly see a fourth round of UN sanctions imposed upon Iran, because Iran has not yet been able to convince the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency that it aims only for peaceful energy production. “I’m interested in seeing that regime in place in weeks,” Mr. Obama said after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Washington.

Building diplomatic momentum for more sanctions was the top agenda item for G-8 foreign ministers meeting in Canada. In their final communiqué on Tuesday, they agreed to “remain open to dialogue” with Tehran but “reaffirmed the need to take appropriate and strong steps” to demonstrate resolve.

Amiri's background

Amiri was a researcher at Malek Ashtar University of Defense Technology, which was listed for sanctions by the European Union in mid-2008. According to the European Union Council regulation, it was “linked” to Iran’s Ministry of Defense and “set up a missiles training course in 2003.”

The rector of the university, a lieutenant general, was named in the UN Security Council’s first round of sanctions on Iran in 2006 as one of seven “persons involved in the nuclear program.”

Iranian news reports refer to Amiri as an “academic.” Last October Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Iran had documents proving that the US had abducted Amiri and also played a role in the March 2007 disappearance in Istanbul of retired Deputy Defense Minister Alireza Asgari, who also reportedly defected and has helped Western and Israeli intelligence agencies.

Last December, however, the head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Ali Akbar Salehi, told the Fars News Agency — which has close links to the Revolutionary Guard — that Amiri had “no links” with the AEOI and was never employed by it.

Still, three months after Amiri disappeared during a June 2009 pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, Iran quietly informed the UN’s nuclear watchdog that it was building a small uranium enrichment plant near Qom, south of Tehran – apparently after learning that US intelligence had become aware of the facility, and to preempt by a day President Obama’s announcement of its existence.

Some reports have suggested Amiri worked at the nascent Qom facility.

Inspectors from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported the underground site to be in an “advanced” stage of construction, and the IAEA found Iran in breach of safeguard rules for not declaring the site. Iran claims it did not need to inform the IAEA until six months before nuclear material was to be introduced.

Covert operations

“The covert operations that undoubtedly have been underway for several years have been important in two ways,” says Fitzpatrick at IISS. “One is the knowledge that has been revealed ... that has set back Iran’s ability to keep its nuclear facilities secret. When Qom was revealed, for example, it rendered it inoperable as a venue for producing the fissile material for nuclear weapons that it had apparently been intended for. And it looks as though Amiri may have played a factor in that revelation.”

The second “is in impeding Iran’s drive toward getting as close to nuclear weapons as possible,” says Fitzpatrick. “[Covert operations have] impeded the drive by apparently inducing industrial sabotage that has resulted in a more rapid breakage rate for centrifuges, and by—maybe—trying to remove some of the brains from the program.”

ABC reported that CIA case officers for more than a decade have tried to recruit Iranian scientists and officials using relatives already living in the US and have made hundreds of interviews, many of them in Los Angeles, where there is a large Iranian-American community.

The US government is working on a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program that is expected to revise some conclusions of the last one. That NIE in December 2007 concluded that Iran had worked on a nuclear weapon program until the autumn of 2003, but then stopped.

Reports of the defection come while Iran has touted recent intelligence successes of its own, including the high-profile February capture of Abdolmalek Rigi, the head the Jundallah (Soldiers of God), a Sunni and ethnic Baluch rebel group responsible for a string of high-profile attacks that have killed scores of civilians and Revolutionary Guard officers and soldiers.

Iran accused the US of supporting the group—which Washington denies—along with Kurdish, Arab and other minorities against the government. Iranian officials showed photographs they said were images of Mr. Rigi, just days before his capture, at a US military base in Afghanistan.

Earlier this week, Iranian intelligence agents mounted what they called a “complex” cross-border operation to free an Iranian diplomat held for 16 months in northwest Pakistan. Iran accused US and Israeli agents of backing the kidnappers.

“We have a high intelligence capability in the region,” Iran’s Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi said, according to the Associated Press. “We have a good intelligence dominance over all other secret agencies active in the region.”

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