Shahram Amiri, the Iranian nuclear scientist at the center of a US-Iran propaganda war, arrived to a hero’s welcome in Tehran early on Thursday morning, repeating claims that he was kidnapped by US agents more than a year ago and pressured to divulge nuclear secrets.
American officials say Mr. Amiri defected of his own free will and reportedly provided useful intelligence, but missed his wife and 7-year-old son still in Iran. Upon his return home he was greeted by garlands of flowers, senior officials, and his tearful family.
Amiri's departure from the United States may end one chapter in his mysterious saga, but it will almost certainly open another chapter in Tehran. Officials will want to know more about how Amiri ended up in the US, as well as why, and what information he may have given away.
Amiri burnishes his 'kidnapped academic' story
At an airport press conference, Amiri’s comments appeared to be aimed at burnishing the "kidnapped academic" story for Iranian officials – who at least in public have dismissed Amiri’s nuclear knowledge as inconsequential. Iran’s official media supported that version of events, portraying Amiri as a “scholar” who was ready to tell more about his 14-month “captivity” in the US.
“I have documents proving that I was not free [in the US] and could not contact anybody, and was constantly being watched by the CIA’s armed agents,” Amiri said at the press conference, according to a translation by the state-run PressTV.
“In the US, I was subjected to [the] heaviest psychological tortures by CIA interrogators,” Amiri alleged in his remarks, as his son sat on his knee. “This was part of a political propaganda campaign against the Islamic Republic. They wanted me to tell the American media that I had defected to the US and had some documents along with a lap-top computer that contained the most confidential [data] about Iran’s nuclear program.
“They threatened to hand me over to Israel unless I did whatever they wanted me to. They also said there are secret prisons in Israel, and there will be no trace of you anymore,” Amiri said, who also alleged that Israeli agents took part in some interrogations. “It was evident that they were secretly planning to transfer me to Israel.”
One source in Tehran who has been critical of Iran's regime says the kidnap story was “bogus.” None of the estimated 3,000 people detained – some kidnapped – by the CIA through its post-9/11 "extraordinary rendition" program had ever been known to escape.
If Amiri was important enough to kidnap against his will, the source suggested, he never would have had the freedom of movement or choice that he apparently had while in the US.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Amiri had arrived on his own volition, and was also “free to go.”
“It’s like children fighting over a toy,” says the Tehran source of the mutually hostile US-Iran rhetoric.
US media reports CIA offered millions to Amiri
Upon arrival in Tehran, Amiri sought to dispel US media reports that he had for several years been a “CIA spy” whose defection was an “intelligence coup” for Americans trying to learn more about Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
Amiri downplayed his nuclear credentials, saying he was a “simple researcher” at a university, and was “not involved in any confidential jobs. I had no classified information.” Any “normal” Iranian, he said, would have more nuclear knowledge than him about Iran's nuclear sites.
The Washington Post reported late Wednesday that the CIA had paid Amiri $5 million, as part of a secret American program to lure nuclear scientists from Iran.
Quoting unnamed US intelligence officials, the Post reported that Amiri was “not obligated to return the money but might be unable to access it after breaking off what officials described as significant cooperation with the CIA and abruptly returning to Iran.”
“He’s gone, but his money’s not,” the Post quoted a US official saying. “We have his information, and the Iranians have him.”
Early Thursday in Tehran, however, Amiri claimed to have rejected a US offer of $50 million to safely resettle him and his family in a European country if he “reversed his decision to return to Iran." US agents, he also alleged, were willing to pay $10 million if he did a 10-minute interview with CNN affirming that he came to the US of his own free will.
Iranians call on US to admit defeat
Iranian press reports declared Amiri’s return a “new victory for the Iranian intelligence apparatus.”
That view was reinforced on PressTV – as it almost certainly was on Farsi-language broadcasts – by comments like those of journalist Ghanbar Naderi, a columnist for a government newspaper Iran Daily.
“I’m telling the Americans: Have the guts, admit defeat, and leave the [soccer] pitch,” said Mr. Naderi. “Because, trust me, they would be saving us all a lot of headache.”
Amiri denied that his family had been under pressure, despite US media reports to the contrary. In late June, ABC news quoted unnamed US officials saying that Amiri had made two calls to his wife and son in Tehran – the second of which was answered by Iranian intelligence agents, who said the son would be killed if Amiri did not produce a video saying he had been abducted, which he did.
“It is not true at all,” Amiri said at the airport press conference. “After my abduction, Iranian officials supported my family.”
Among the airport welcoming committee was a deputy foreign minister, Hassan Qashqavi, who denied rumors that Amiri’s return to Iran could potentially bring home three Americans arrested in July 2009 while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border and accused of espionage.