WASHINGTON - United States officials are explaining Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri's return to Iran as the result of a defector having a change of heart because of his concern about Iranian government threats to his family. Iran and Amiri himself have insisted that it is a simple case of a victim of abduction escaping his captors.
But several features of the story of Amiri's defection suggest that Amiri may have been acting on Iranian government orders to defect temporarily in order to embarrass the US government.
Amiri resurfaced only last month after having disappeared from Saudi Arabia during a pilgrimage in June 2009. He made two seemingly contradictory videos that appeared within hours of one another, the first charging that the US had kidnapped him and taken him to the US against his will, the second saying he was living in the US freely to continue his education.
That mystery remained unresolved when Amiri turned up at the Pakistani Embassy in New York on Monday evening and said he wanted to return to Iran, which he did on Thursday.
One indication that intelligence officials are now considering the real possibility that Amiri's defection was not genuine is that questions are being raised about how the contact was made with Amiri in the first place.
ABC news had reported on March 31 that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had approached Amiri through an intermediary and offered resettlement to the United States. But the Washington Post's David Ignatius, who is extraordinarily well connected with CIA officials, suggested in a column on Wednesday that Amiri had contacted the agency first and "may have been a virtual walk-in".
That means Amiri contacted the agency through the Internet - normally a danger signal for a "defector" who is still a government agent.
Ignatius also notes another "mystery" about the Iranian scientist now apparently being discussed in intelligence circles: "Why he decided to defect without his young wife and child, leaving them - and himself - vulnerable to Iranian pressure."
The normal practice would be for the agency to arrange for the entire family of a defector to accompany the asset. But Ignatius notes that Amiri chose to leave his family in Tehran, which should have been another danger sign for the CIA.
Yet another indicator that US intelligence officials suspected that Amiri's defection was a deception is how far they have gone to portray him as a long-time US intelligence agent.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that a US official had claimed Amiri was paid US$5 million for valuable intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.
A June 28 ABC news story went much further, quoting US intelligence officials as claiming that Amiri had been a spy for the CIA on Iran's nuclear program for several years. The sources claimed the CIA had urged him to flee Iran last year "out of fear that his disclosures might expose him to Tehran as a spy". ABC news repeated that same assertion in its July 13 story on Amiri returning to Iran.
In the arcane world of spying, those claims wouldn't have been leaked to the media unless the CIA believed Amiri was working for the other side, according to a former intelligence official. "This is the pattern of a double agent," said the former official. "Nothing else makes any sense."
Other information that has now emerged about Amiri suggests that the story that he was a long-term CIA asset was a falsehood aimed at sowing distrust of Amiri in Tehran.
At age 32, Amiri is a very junior scientist who could not have had information about such issues as plans for a nuclear facility at Qom, even if he were working for the nuclear program.
The Post story acknowledges that the scientist "is not believed to have had direct access to Iran's most sensitive nuclear sites or leaders involved in decisions on whether to pursue a bomb".
Both the Iranian Foreign Ministry and Amiri's wife have said he was a specialist on radioisotopes for medical purposes, which would mean that he probably had no knowledge of the nuclear program of any value to US intelligence.
Amiri's behavior this spring appears to reflect an interest in demonstrating to the world that the US government was intent on disseminating falsehoods about an alleged Iranian push for nuclear weapons.
In early April, Amiri recorded a video in which he claimed to have been kidnapped and held against his will, which was sent to Iran for broadcast. A central point of the video, however, was his claim that the real objective of the US was to get him to say in a televised interview that he was an important figure in the nuclear program and that he had brought "very important documents on a laptop with classified information on Iran's military nuclear program".
When that video was broadcast on Iranian state television on June 8, it was followed within hours by the posting of another video of Amiri seeming to deny his previous statements. The second video had obviously been produced by the CIA well in advance.
That sequence of events indicates that Amiri's CIA handlers had learned weeks before that he was already intending to return to Iran, and insisted that he do a video in which he would admit that he was in the US of his own volition.
Amiri agreed to make such a statement on camera, knowing that the CIA would post it on YouTube if and when a video claiming he was abducted was posted. But he also insisted on including a statement implying that leaks to the press indicating that he had given valuable intelligence to the CIA on Iran's nuclear program were false.
In the CIA-sponsored video, Amiri says, "I am free here and assure everyone that I am safe." But he also calls for an end to "information that distorts the reality about me" and says, "I am not involved in weapons research and have no experience and knowledge in this field."
He may have been referring to a Washington Post report on April 25 that he had provided "details about sensitive programs, including a long-hidden enrichment plant near the city of Qom" and an ABC report on March 31 that he had "helped confirm US intelligence assessments about the Iranian nuclear program".
Even before Amiri posted yet another video portraying himself as a kidnap victim on June 30, US intelligence officials apparently suspected they had been duped by him and retaliated by leaking the story that Amiri had been a long-term CIA intelligence asset in Iran.
The CIA's eagerness to claim an intelligence coup on Iran's nuclear program appears to have set the agency up for the Amiri defection scheme. They viewed his affiliation with Malek-e-Ashtar Industrial University, which has connections to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as evidence that he must be linked to the assumed Iranian plans for a "nuclear weapons capability".
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.