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Iranian scientist's flight from US sparks propaganda war

An Iranian atomic researcher who disappeared in Saudi Arabia and spent a year in the US is back in Tehran. Now, observers are puzzling over a conflicting - and confusing - trail of accusations and video evidence.

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Amiri was greeted tearfully upon his return to Tehran

Shahram Amiri disappeared during a pilgrimmage to the holy city of Medina, in Saudi Arabia. He spent the following 14 months in the US, under mysterious circumstances. On Wednesday, he returned to Iran.

But whether Amiri left Saudi Arabia of his own free will or because he was pressured to do so is up for debate.

'Harshest mental and physical torture'

Amiri arrived in Tehran early Thursday, where he was met by his wife, his seven year old son, and other family members, as well as the Iranian deputy foreign minister. There, he repeated the accusation that he had been kidnapped by the CIA while he was on a pilgrimmage.

"I was under the harshest mental and physical torture" in America, he said, and claimed that he had been tortured by both US and Israeli interrogation specialists. He insisted that he was just a researcher, and had no access to confidential information.

Image grab of Amiri from his second video

In the second video, Amiri appears to be reading his text

But US news sources reported on Friday that the 32 year-old Amiri had come to the US willingly, and that he had chosen to leave his family behind. They said he had returned to Iran in order to see his family again, they said.

CIA says Amiri a long-time informer

During his time in the US, Amiri had been paid $5 million (3.8 million euros) for information on the Iranian atomic program, sources told the New York Times. The paper claimed it had evidence that Amiri had been a CIA informant inside Iran for years, and had divulged key information in that time.

"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 report said, citing unnamed US officials.

"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," it further cited the officials as saying.

Atomic scientist, or 'simple researcher'?

The troubling story began in May, 2009, when Amiri disappeared en route to Mecca. Amiri's family reported him as missing, and the Iranian authorities said they thought he had been kidnapped and brought to the US.

In December, 2009, Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Manouchehr Mottaki, also said he thought Amiri had been abducted. Washington claimed to be unaware of any kidnapping or abduction.

Since the beginning, the public has been kept guessing about the truth of the matter. The Iranians have said Amiri is a "researcher at the Malek-Aschtar University," - a university that some American officials think provides an academic cover for designing weapons and warheads that could fit atop an Iranian missile.

Video image grab from final YouTube video

In the last video, Amiri urged his family not to worry about his safety

Amiri himself says he is just a "simple researcher" with no ties to any atomic programs. And the head of the Iranian atomic energy agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, says he doesn't know of any employee named Sharam Amiri. He, too, claims Amiri is not an atomic scientist.

But according to the US media, Amiri is a nuclear physicist who worked on Iran's atomic program and then defected to the US. On March 31, the US television station ABC reported that Amiri had defected after a long preparation period, and that he was working for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Speculation was heated by the fact that three months after Amiri's disappearance, an unknown uranium enrichment facility in the northern Iranian city of Ghom was brought to the attention of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Conflicting video statements

Adding more confusion to the situation is a series of video statements made by Amiri.

On June 6, Iranian state television showed part of an unprofessional-looking video that was first aired on YouTube. In it, a dishevelled Amiri claims he was taken against his will, drugged, and flown to the US without consent. He had been held in Tucson, Arizona, and tortured, he said.

A few days later, a second video appeared on YouTube. This time the video looked more professional made, and Amiri - now well dressed and reading stiltedly from what seem to be cue cards - explains that he was in Tucson of his own free will, that he had gone there to further his education, and that he was happy to be in America. Moreover, he said, he wanted to complete a doctorate before returning to Iran.

Three weeks later came the third video. In this one, Amiri said he had been picked up by US officials in the state of Virginia, where the CIA has its headquarters. Furthermore, he claims that he was offered $10 million to tell the television station CNN than he had voluntarily defected. The third video was shown in Iranian television as well.

Return to Iran

The validity of all three videos is under question, and they have unleashed wild speculation as to Amiri's true motives.

On June 13, Iranian state television reported that Amiri had turned himself over to Iran's Interest Section at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki demanded his immediate return to Iran.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded that Amiri himself had come of his own free will to the US, and so he was free to leave at any time. It was the first time that a US official had acknowledged Amiri's stay in the US.

Possible propaganda war

The case has all the earmarks of a propaganda war between the US and Iranian secret intelligence agencies. Some have speculated that Amiri's return might be tied to the release of three American hikers who are currently being held in Iran.

Others assume Amiri returned home after Tehran threatened the welfare of his family, who had remained in Iran. (Amiri himself denies this, saying his family had "no problems' with the Iranian government.)

Meanwhile, US officials say Amiri's accusations that he was kidnapped and drugged were manufactured, and that they are an effort to survive what will almost certainly be a grilling by the Iranian authorities.

Doubts from Iran

"His safety depends on him sticking to that fairy tale about pressure and torture. His challenge is to try to convince the Iranian security forces that he never cooperated with the United States," the New York Times quoted an American official, as saying.

Meanwhile, Iran's Foreign Minister Mottaki 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. Iran must determine if his claims about being kidnapped were correct or not," Mottaki told reporters.

Author: Shabnam Nourian/jen (AFP, AP, Reuters)
Editor: Michael Knigge

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