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An Iranian nuclear scientist has taken refuge at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, amid conflicting stories over whether he was a willing defector or was kidnapped by Saudi and US intelligence last year. Iran, which does not have an embassy of its own in the US, has an interest section in the Pakistani embassy.
Shahram Amiri's defection, initially reported by ABC News in March, was called “an intelligence coup” in American attempts to damage and better understand Iran’s controversial nuclear program. This week's dramatic turn of events is embarrassing to US intelligence and could result in a diplomatic stand-off, according to the BBC.
It comes as the US is seeking global cooperation in pressuring Iran to give up its nuclear program, which the US and Israel say is intended as a weapons program. Tehran insists it is for peaceful research purposes only. The UN Security Council recently approved a fourth round of sanctions on Iran over the program.
Mr. Amiri turned up at the Iranian interests section of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington around 6:30 p.m. Monday, sources told CNN. That section handles Iranian affairs in the US in the absence of formal ties between the US and Iran, which were cut in 1979 when 52 US embassy staff were taken hostage in Tehran.
Amiri, a relatively young scientist, is seeking immediate repatriation to Iran, according to a Pakistani source quoted by the BBC. US officials cannot enter the Pakistani embassy grounds but could prevent him from leaving the country.
Amiri disappeared last year while on a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Tehran has said the US was holding him against his will. The US has denied involvement in his disappearance.
An anonymous US official told CNN last month that the claim that the US kidnapped someone and held them against their will would be "ludicrous, absurd and even preposterous."
Amiri's appearance at the Pakistani embassy lends credence to Tehran's kidnapping claims, the BBC reported, as does one of at least three videos posted to Youtube in June. One of the videos purportedly shows Amiri saying:
In the third video, which was broadcast by Iranian state TV on 29 June, a man claiming to be the missing scientist says: "I, Shahram Amiri, am a national of the Islamic Republic of Iran and a few minutes ago I succeeded in escaping US security agents in Virginia.
"Presently, I am producing this video in a safe place. I could be rearrested at any time." ...
"I am not free here and I am not permitted to contact my family. If something happens and I do not return home alive, the US government will be responsible."
The video finishes with the man urging Iranian officials and human rights organisations to "put pressure on the US government for my release and return."
"I was not prepared to betray my country under any kind of threats or bribery by the US government," he adds.
But the BBC points out that another video message appeared on YouTube on the same day, recorded apparently by the same man, entirely contradicting the previous statement version. The BBC states:
In this video, he says he is in the US to continue his education, adding: "I am free here and I assure everyone that I am safe."
He says he is "not involved in weapons research and have no experience and knowledge in this field."
Other reports have muddied the waters still further, variously claiming that he had defected to the West and helped the CIA, or that he had actually been employed by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization.
The Tehran Times said that Amiri had been a researcher at Tehran's Malek Ashtar University and "was abducted by CIA agents with the cooperation of Saudi intelligence forces in June 2009 in Saudi Arabia."
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, said in an update in February (the Council on Foreign Relations offers a copy of the document) that Iran was not giving its inspectors access to key facilities and requested information to help it assess Tehran's program. The update reads:
Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities. ... Iran needs to cooperate in clarifying outstanding issues which give rise to concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the IAEA said Iran had continued to develop its military-use nuclear program past 2004, "in contrast to US intelligence assessments that Iran had halted weapons activity in 2003 and had not begun anew," with activities including uranium enrichment.
On Sunday, according to the ISNA news agency, Tehran announced it had produced 20 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium, which can be used in atomic bombs.
See a video of an interview by RT America about Amiri's bizarre case with former CIA analyst Raymond McGovern, who says there could be a degree of truth in the competing – but not contradictory – stories that Amiri was kidnapped or was a willing defector.