New York Times: The Iranian scientist who American officials say defected to the United States, only to return to Tehran on Thursday, had been an informant for the Central Intelligence Agency inside Iran for several years, providing information about the country’s nuclear program, according to United States officials.
The New York Times
By DAVID E. SANGER and MARK MAZZETTI
The Iranian scientist who American officials say defected to the United States, only to return to Tehran on Thursday, had been an informant for the Central Intelligence Agency inside Iran for several years, providing information about the country’s nuclear program, according to United States officials.
The scientist, Shahram Amiri, described to American intelligence officers details of how a university in Tehran became the covert headquarters for the country’s nuclear efforts, the officials confirmed. While still in Iran, he was also one of the sources for a much-disputed National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s suspected weapons program, published in 2007, the officials said. For several years, Mr. Amiri provided what one official described as “significant, original” information about secret aspects of his country’s nuclear program, according to the Americans.
This account by the Americans, some of whom are apparently trying to discredit Mr. Amiri’s tale of having been kidnapped by the C.I.A., provides the latest twist in one of strangest tales of the nuclear era. It also provides the first hint of how the United States acquired intelligence from Iranian scientists, besides its previously reported penetrations of Iranian computer systems.
Mr. Amiri arrived in Tehran on Thursday repeating his allegation that he had been grabbed in Saudi Arabia by the C.I.A. and Saudi intelligence, and tortured. American officials, clearly embarrassed that he had left a program that promised him a new identity and benefits amounting to about $5 million, said his accusations that he had been kidnapped and drugged were manufactured, and an effort to survive what will almost certainly be a grilling by the Iranian authorities.
“His safety depends on him sticking to that fairy tale about pressure and torture,” insisted one of the American officials, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified while discussing a classified operation to attract Iranian scientists. “His challenge is to try to convince the Iranian security forces that he never cooperated with the United States.”
On Thursday, even as Mr. Amiri was publicly greeted at home by his 7-year-old son and held a news conference, Iran’s foreign minister gave the first official hints of Iranian doubts about his story. “We first have to see what has happened in these two years and then we will determine if he’s a hero or not,” the BBC quoted the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, as saying to a French news agency. “Iran must determine if his claims about being kidnapped were correct or not.”
After more than a year of denying any knowledge of Mr. Amiri while he was living undercover in Tucson and then briefly in Virginia, American officials in recent days have been surprisingly willing to describe their actions in the case. That may be in part to fend off charges that the handling of the Amiri case was badly bungled.
The Washington Post first reported that Mr. Amiri had been given $5 million, which officials described Thursday as standard for someone who had provided essential information. But the money would have been paid over an extended period, the officials said, and Mr. Amiri was not able to take it with him because American sanctions prohibited financial transfers to Iran.
It is unclear how Mr. Amiri’s information fed into the 2007 intelligence estimate. That document contended that Iran halted its design work on a nuclear weapon in 2003. A new national intelligence estimate, which has been repeatedly delayed this year, is likely to back away from some of the conclusions in the earlier document. For example, American intelligence officials now believe the design work on a weapon was resumed and continues to this day, though likely at a slower pace than earlier in the decade.
Mr. Amiri, a specialist in measuring radioactive materials, is not believed to have been central to any of Iran’s efforts at weapons design. But he worked at the Malek Ashtar University, which some American officials think is used as an academic cover for the organization responsible for designing weapons and warheads that could fit atop an Iranian missile. Those operations are run by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian academic with long and close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Mr. Fakhrizadeh, United States officials maintain, is now effectively the head of the university, and in an effort to evade international inspectors has reorganized the structure of the Iranian program.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, an opposition group based in France, in 2004 disclosed the existence of what it called a secret administrative headquarters for the military aspects of the Iranian program. The group made public more information in 2008, saying the site was in a suburb of Tehran adjacent to the university, giving it academic cover, and was called Mojdeh, after an adjacent street.
Mohammad Mohaddessin, head of the group’s foreign affairs committee, said the school “does not operate like a university.” Instead, he said, it is “a center for research and development of weapons” and works in cooperation with the Mojdeh site.
The American officials said that at some point while working as a secret informant, Mr. Amiri visited Saudi Arabia, and the C.I.A. arranged to spirit him out of that country and eventually to the United States, where he settled in Arizona. It is unclear whether Mr. Amiri tried to bring his wife and child with him.
Administration officials conceded that Mr. Amiri’s decision to come out of hiding and return to Iran was both a large embarrassment and a possible disincentive to future defections.
But the incident is also an embarrassment for Iran. Analysts said that even if he is publicly greeted as a hero, Mr. Amiri will probably be viewed with suspicion by the Iranian government.
After Mr. Amiri arrived in Tehran, he added details to his claims that he had been abducted by the C.I.A. and Saudi intelligence officers on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June 2009. He said that he had no connection with Iran’s nuclear program and that he was the victim of an American conspiracy to wage “psychological warfare” against Iran.
Mr. Amiri told reporters he had been offered $10 million to say on CNN that he had arrived in the United States to seek asylum.
He said that just before his departure for Iran, he was offered $50 million and the chance for a new life in a European country of his choosing if he decided to stay.
“I don’t think that any Iranian in my place would have sold his dignity to another country for a financial reward,” Mr. Amiri said.
Mr. Amiri refused to describe how, if he was under armed guard, he had been able to release video messages in which he said that he had been kidnapped. He also did not answer questions about how he had eventually escaped detention.
William J. Broad contributed reporting.