The strange case of Shahram Amiri

Iranian defector or CIA kidnap victim? Willing or unwilling informant on Iran’s nuclear program? There are more questions than answers about Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri, who made news after showing up at an office of the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, saying he wanted to return home. But the most pressing one of all is: What will become of him?

Already we’ve seen the hero’s welcome, with Amiri flashing a victory sign upon his arrival in Tehran on Thursday and repeating claims that he was kidnapped and abused by U.S. agents. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki greeted Amiri at the airport as a “dear compatriot,” while others there accused the Obama administration of having carried out a “terrorist act.” But once Amiri’s propaganda value has diminished, what will happen to the man who, according to unnamed U.S. officials, provided useful information on Iran’s clandestine nuclear program in exchange for $5 million from the CIA?

The facts of the 32-year-old scientist’s story are murky, from his arrival in the United States to his conflicting video accounts of what happened and, now, the circumstances leading to his return. In this summer of Russian spies who gathered no secrets, this may seem like yet more material for a paperback thriller. But the competing versions of the truth coming from Amiri himself, as well as from Tehran and Washington, deserve serious investigation.

Amiri alleged in one video that U.S. officials kidnapped him while he was on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June 2009, drugged him and put him on a plane to the United States, where he was tortured into “proving lies” about Iran’s nuclear program. In another video he claimed he was studying here and planned to return home soon. U.S. officials assert that Amiri voluntarily defected but then had a change of heart; they suggest that Iranian officials used his wife and toddler to pressure him to return. Some Iranian exiles, meanwhile, suspect that Amiri was a double agent who always planned to go back, and that U.S. officials may have fallen into a trap that has become a publicity coup for Iran.

It would be easier to dismiss the kidnapping allegation if the U.S. government didn’t have a history of extrajudicial renditions, nabbing suspects in one country to send them to another for interrogation. The Obama administration should clarify whether there was any wrongdoing on the part of U.S. intelligence officials in this case. Yet Amiri’s conflicting statements make him an unreliable witness, especially now that he is back in Tehran, where defying the ruling clerics could cost him his freedom and perhaps his life.

U.S. officials’ statements that Amiri provided valuable information and received millions of dollars could doom him. Tehran has demonstrated its intolerance for suspected spies and alleged traitors. Although there are no exact parallels, the Iranian government is holding three American hikers accused of spying. A prominent Iranian blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, has been held since November 2008, when he returned to Iran after a visit to Israel and was accused of spying. Opposition political activists have received draconian prison sentences. Whatever he may have done, Amiri deserves to be treated humanely and given due process.