BAGHDAD — Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri is reportedly headed back home after declaring that he had been kidnapped by American agents in Saudi Arabia and brought to the US against his will.
Just months before, US officials had called Mr. Amiri’s arrival in the US a defection and hailed it as an “intelligence coup” for the CIA. More recently, according to ABC news, officials said Amiri had supplied nuclear secrets for years and had “provided evidence that Iran continued a program to produce nuclear weapons.”
Even by the high standards of a 31-year propaganda war between the US and Iran, the Amiri saga is a special case.
Iran’s state-run media claimed Amiri’s return as a victory for the country, while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was nonchalant on Tuesday, saying Amiri had “been in the United States of his own free will and he is free to go.”
“On the propaganda score, I would give a marginal victory to Iran at the moment,” says Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland. “There are more questions to be answered by the Americans, I think. But it’s not an [Iranian] triumph.”
“The more [the Iranians] talk about it, the more propaganda they make about it, the more I think they’re trying to … disguise something that went wrong,” adds Dr. Ansari, who says everyone is telling “half-truths.”
‘Baffling’ case leaves many questions unanswered
Analysts say there are more questions than answers in a “baffling” case, which makes it easy for both sides to claim propaganda victory.
Senior Iranian officials have presented to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran – which handles American interests in Iran – what they described as “evidence” that Amiri was victim of a US and Saudi kidnap operation during the hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June last year.
The US denies the charge, and until this week did not acknowledge Amiri’s presence in the country. Officials have so far presented nothing – such as a visa application, or a copy of a plane ticket – to indicate that Amiri arrived in America through normal channels. Student visas for Iranians require university acceptance, proof of sufficient funds, and are typically a long and involved process.
Likewise, Iran has downplayed the 33-year-old’s nuclear credentials, claiming for months that he was never an employee of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, and regularly referring to Amiri on official broadcasts simply as an “abducted academic.”
But an Iranian news site reported that Amiri had worked at Iran’s Qom nuclear site, the existence of which was declared by Iran in September – several months after Amiri disappeared – when it became aware that the US and Western intelligence agencies knew of it.
Amiri’s contradictory YouTube videos
The competing narratives have been fueled by Amiri’s own set of contradictory YouTube videos.
In one aired on June 29, which ABC reported he was compelled to make after his wife and son back in Iran were threatened, he accuses the US of kidnapping him. He speaks of his “escape” from American intelligence handlers in Virginia and his wish to return to Iran.
“I could be arrested at any time by US agents. … I am not free and I’m not allowed to contact my family. If something happens and I do not return home alive, the US government will be responsible,” says Amiri, his eyes darting repeatedly to the top of the screen. “I ask Iranian officials and organizations that defend human rights to raise pressure on the US government for my release and return to my country.”
In a later one, which ABC says was made by the CIA, Amiri – flanked by a globe and chess set – spoke of his desire to stay in America and pursue his studies.
ABC had earlier reported that Amiri’s disappearance “was part of a long-planned CIA operation to get him to defect.” Amiri had been approached in Iran through an intermediary “who made an offer of resettlement on behalf of the United States,” and had since been “extensively debriefed” by the CIA.
State TV broadcasts Amiri’s tale of abduction
The Amiri saga “is almost as weird as it gets,” says a US diplomatic source who could not be named. The official is “convinced they somehow have forced [Amiri]/lured him/bribed him/threatened to kill his family in order to get him. I suspect once he goes back, he’ll be propped up on TV and milked for propaganda value, then he’ll disappear.”
Iran’s state-run PressTV reported that Amiri had been “escorted” by “US forces” to the Iranian interest section of the Pakistani embassy in Washington this week. While still there on Tuesday, Amiri gave an exclusive interview to PressTV about his alleged abduction during the hajj last year.
“Three days after my arrival in Medina, I was heading to the mosque of the prophet. On my way, a white van stopped near me. There were three people inside. A driver, a bearded man in a suit and another man in the back seat, who was also wearing a suit,” Amiri was quoted as saying on the English-language channel.
They offered him a ride to the mosque, which “out of respect” he says he accepted. “Once I got in the van, the man who was inside said, ‘Don’t make any noise.’ I was confused at that moment, and had no idea what was happening.”
In a translation on Al Jazeera English, Amiri claims the man at the back “put a gun at my side.”
“They took me to an unknown location in Saudi Arabia,” Amiri said, according to PressTV. “They gave me an injection. When I regained consciousness, I found myself in a big plane, blindfolded. I could tell from the sound of the aircraft’s engine it was not a passenger plane. I realized that it was a military plane. And when the plane landed, I found myself in the US.”
Iran’s state-run TV claims victory over US
Iran’s Fars News Agency, which has close links to the powerful Revolutionary Guard force, echoed Iran’s state-run media when it described Amiri as an “Iranian scholar” and presented the news of his imminent return as a triumph.
“The development is considered a new victory for the Iranian intelligence apparatus which sought hard to present authentic evidence corroborating the abduction of Amiri by the CIA,” Fars reported on Tuesday. “Tehran has long complained about the United States’ terrorist acts in different Middle Eastern countries, specially in Iraq and Afghanistan where a dozen Iranian diplomats have been abducted by the US agents.”
Amiri told state TV in an interview: “My kidnapping was a disgraceful act for America… I was under enormous psychological pressure and supervision of armed agents in the past 14 months.”
PressTV on Wednesday quoted unnamed “analysts” saying that “US intelligence officials decided to release Amiri after they failed to advance their propaganda campaign against Iran’s nuclear program via fabricating interviews with the Iranian national.”
After propaganda coup, trouble for Amiri back home?
Nevertheless, suggests Ansari, any joyful homecoming from this scientists return is likely to be short-lived.
“The Americans must feel, if they are going to let him go like this…. either they’ve threatened his family in Iran, or they’re pretty sure that this guy’s an idiot who, frankly, is going to be severely punished when he gets back to Iran.”
“I cannot, for the life of me, imagine that he is going to go back to Iran and be treated as a hero,” says Ansari. “I think they will make as much capital as they can out of him – that is part of the price of all this… but I’m sure that afterwards they will be taking him aside and asking, ‘What…was going on?”