Iranian Scientist Was Part of Larger CIA Mole Operation, Officials Say

The CIA in 2009 removed Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri and another intelligence source from Iran over fears that Tehran had discovered the individuals were U.S. informants, the Washington Post reported Saturday (seeGSN, July 16).

Amiri disappeared in May of last year during a trip to Saudi Arabia. News reports in the United States said he had defected and was supporting CIA activities against Tehran’s nuclear program, which Washington suspects is geared toward weapons development. Tehran maintained Amiri was abducted; the government has denied harboring any military ambitions for its atomic activities. The scientist returned to Iran this month, contending he had been kidnapped.

The scientist was one of six CIA moles inside Iran’s nuclear program who defected to the United States and received monetary rewards from the spy agency, according to officials. Although some of the informants left Iran willingly, Amiri and one other source were pressured to leave their country amid concerns that they were drawing scrutiny from the Iranian Intelligence and Security Ministry, current and former U.S. government personnel said.

“There was fear of exposure,” said one former high-level U.S. intelligence official with knowledge of the matter. One of the informants had become “sloppy” in contacts with the CIA, and stayed in Iran “longer than we thought prudent” after learning of the danger, the official said.

Once in the United States, Amiri opted against seeking to relocate his family, U.S. officials said.

The CIA was set to investigate how Amiri’s return to Iran could expose the agency’s informants or procedures. “They have to go over everything he did provide and put a big caveat on it,” one former high-level CIA official said (Greg Miller, Washington Post, July 17).

The agency was also looking into whether Amiri was acting as a double agent, a former CIA official told the London Telegraph(Sherwell/Lowther, London Telegraph, July 17).

Amiri’s uncertain loyalties could further delay completion of a long-awaited update to a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on the Middle Eastern nation’s nuclear program, government sources added. The report asserted with “high confidence” that Tehran halted its formal nuclear weapons program in late 2003 and with “moderate confidence” that the effort had not been resumed (Miller, Washington Post).

“This is clearly one that went bad,” a high-level Obama administration official said of the case Friday. “I don’t know whether that’s because the agency mishandled it, or whether it’s because the guy was a bit unstable,” the official told the New York Times (David Sanger, New York Times, July 16).

In an Iranian state television interview aired Saturday, the scientist asserted that U.S. officials had pressured him to confess to spying on the United States so he could be exchanged for three hikers held in Iran.

“They (U.S. agents) wanted me to say that ‘I was an Iranian intelligence agent infiltrating the CIA,'” Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying. “If I said this, they said I could be part of a spy exchange program, whereby I could be handed over to Iran in return for the three American spies arrested near the Iraqi border.”

Amiri said he was a specialist in health physics and that his U.S. questioners “reached wrong conclusions” about his experience in nuclear matters.

“They wanted to see if the university was conducting nuclear research. They kept asking irrelevant questions and wanted to link Iran’s peaceful nuclear work to that of weaponization,” he said, referring to the Malek Ashtar University of Technology where he had been employed.

“A lie detection machine was attached to me when they thought I was dodging their questions,” Amiri said. “In the end they realized that it was worthless intelligence-wise and that their scheme to abduct me had been defeated.”

He said U.S. officials provided him with records “explaining the process of making nuclear weapons which they wanted me to say I had brought to America.”

Amiri recounted communicating while in the United States with Iranian authorities who used “methods and codes” to identify themselves. “These are issues which I can’t talk about as they could hurt national interests,” he said.

U.S. officials “reached a conclusion that they wanted to close the case and wanted to send me back to Iran,” Amiri said. “I did not go to the [Pakistani Embassy’s Iranian interests section] on my own … it is better to say I did not enter the interests section but was handed over. They ordered a taxi for me and in reality escorted this taxi” (Farhad Pouladi, Agence France-Presse I/Google News, July 18).

The CIA was “disinclined” to allow the Iranian account to prevail without publicizing its own take on Amiri’s disappearance, said an agency analyst with direct information on the affair.

“It might look as if the CIA is taking revenge on Amiri for returning to Iran and that by telling the US media about his cooperation and long record as an agent they are simply signing his death warrant and ensuring that the Iranian authorities would eventually execute him,” the analyst told the Telegraph. “But in reality, whatever the CIA says at this point will have little impact on Amiri’s fate.”

If Amiri was a double agent who gave Washington inaccurate information on Iran’s nuclear program with the ultimate intention of returning, “he will become an Iranian hero and the CIA’s charges will do him no harm,” he said.

“If, on the other hand, he was a genuine defector who returned because he had a change of heart, there is nothing the CIA can do to protect him,” the official said. “Amiri will be subjected to intense interrogations that will quickly break his cover story about being drugged and kidnapped.”

“When that happens, the Iranians will have to decide if they want to hang him as a traitor or carry on the fiction — for propaganda purposes — that he was the victim of a CIA plot,” the analyst said (Sherwell/Lowther, London Telegraph).

“They will keep him in fear and in doubt as to what his eventual fate will be,” former CIA analyst Paul Pillar told the Associated Press. “From the private, official Iranian point of view, this guy is an awful traitor. If it weren’t for the public relations aspect, he might have been strung up yesterday already or shot.”

“It’s unlikely that the Iranians believe his current cover story about being kidnapped,” he said. “There are numerous holes in it. The people in Tehran are not dumb, and they can see through that just as you and I can.”

The scientist is likely to be confined to his home and remain subject to tough interrogation, former CIA officials said, adding that the presence of his wife and child would limit his future options.

“He will be in huge trouble, and he will be in confinement, of some form, for a very long time,” said Charles Faddis, former head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center’s WMD unit. “I assume they are going to be a little restrained for public relation reasons because this thing has become such a high-profile incident.”

“Could they walk back activities and learn about our activities inside?” he added. “Yes, if we were not careful about what we said, what questions we asked, how we asked them, etc. Every time you ask a question it says something about what you already know, what you do not know, what access you have, what access you do not have, what you consider important, what you consider unimportant. We will hope that the debriefing was conducted with all this in mind and an understanding that he might start talking one day” (Adam Goldman, Associated Press I/Google News, July 17).

“I think [the Iranians] have a Soviet approach — they will want to make propaganda use of him,” Council on Foreign Relations scholar Ray Takeyh told the Times. “My impression is that he will be around for a year or so.” Still, “I don’t think it’s going to turn out well for him. They have to establish to other potential defectors that there is a cost to be paid” (Sanger, New York Times).

Meanwhile, U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee lawmakers expressed interest to Switzerland’s ambassador to Iran in resuming talks with the Persian Gulf nation, Iran’s Mehr News Agency yesterday quoted Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, as saying (Mehr News Agency/Tehran Times, July 19).

Following the imposition of a fourth U.N. sanctions resolution against Iran, Tehran threatened Saturday to impose its own penalties on firms that cut ties with the country, AFP reported.

“If one of the companies acts against Iran, we will be forced to consider the reality and put that company on a blacklist,” state media quoted Iranian Oil Minister Massoud Mirkazemi as saying. “They will no longer work in our country” (Agence France-Presse II/Google News, July 17).

Iranian lawmakers yesterday endorsed legislation that would require the country to continue enriching uranium to 20 percent.

Iran in February began further refining low-enriched uranium from its stockpile, ostensibly for producing medical isotopes at a medical research reactor in Tehran. The United States and other Western powers, though, have feared the process could help Iran produce nuclear-weapon material, which has an enrichment level around 90 percent.

The legislation, titled “Combating U.S. and British plots to Protect Nuclear Achievements,” also calls on Tehran to “retaliate” against checks of its ships and refusals of fuel to Iranian aircraft at non-Iranian airports.

“If the bill is finally passed the Atomic Energy Organization will be required to make provisions for the production and supply of 20 percent-enriched fuel to meet the needs of research reactors for medical uses,” Iran’s Fars News Agency stated (Agence France-Presse III/Khaleej Times, July 18).

The Germany-based, Iranian-controlled European-Iranian Trade Bank AG has carried out more than $1 billion in transactions related to Iranian military and ballistic missile work, the Wall Street Journal reported. The firm took part in an elaborate mechanism last year intended to circumvent international penalties against the Middle Eastern nation, according to Western officials (Fritsch/Crawford, Wall Street Journal, July 18).

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard canceled some of its plans for developing a major domestic natural gas field, possibly reflecting the challenge faced by Iranian firms handling the country’s energy work with decreasing outside assistance, AP reported Friday (Nasser Karimi, Associated Press II/Washington Post, July 16).