Iran says the man at the center of a murky intelligence caper -- stretching from the deserts of Saudi Arabia to the strip malls of Tucson to the diplomatic outposts of Washington and back to Tehran -- is a nobody, a simple researcher with no special knowledge of the country’s nuclear program.
Shahram Amiri, whose plane landed in Tehran on Thursday, had been described by Iranians up until now as a radio isotope scientist employed by the nation’s Atomic Energy Organization, as well as an affiliate of an elite university that turns out specialists for the Revolutionary Guard. In a report Thursday, the Washington Post cited unnamed U.S. officials as saying Amiri had been paid $5 million for defecting and cooperating with American intelligence.
But Hassan Qashqavi, a deputy foreign minister appearing alongside Amiri at a press briefing this morning, insisted that Amiri knew nothing about Iran’s nuclear program.
“We deny that Amiri is a nuclear scientist,” said Qashqavi. “Amiri is a researcher at one of Iran’s universities.”
In appearances Thursday on the Al Jazeera news channel and Iranian state television, Amiri insisted that he had been kidnapped, psychologically tortured and grilled for information in an attempt to forge intelligence against Iran.
“I can say for sure that I was kidnapped by the CIA with the assistance of Saudi Arabia, and this is definitely what happened,” he told Al Jazeera. “Over 14 months, I was subjected to several kinds of pressure inside America.”
He added that he did not have “any expertise in any nuclear domain or anything else pertinent to the military nuclear domain.”
Still, of the hundreds of Iranians who run into trouble abroad every year, only those connected to elite circles are mentioned constantly by top officials and receive hero’s welcomes when they arrive home.
U.S. officials say the 32- or 33-year-old Amiri came to America on his own volition and left after he became either homesick or worried for his wife and child in Iran. They have dismissed his claim of being kidnapped as an ill-conceived ruse meant to smooth his way back into the graces of Iranian authorities.
Sitting at a press briefing alongside Qashqavi, Amiri said in comments broadcast on state television that he was drugged and forced to go to the United States on a military plane. Once in America, he claimed, he was pressured to concoct evidence showing Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons.
“They wanted me to announce in the American media that I had come to seek asylum in the United States of America of my own free will and that in this process of seeking asylum, I handed over to their country some very important documents and files contained in a laptop, including secret documents about Iran’s nuclear issue,” he said. “By the grace of God, I resisted them.”
Iran and the United States are at odds the over ultimate purpose of Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran insists that its program is meant only for civilian purposes, but the U.S. and its allies suspect that it aims to acquire nuclear weapons. Even Russia, long a strategic partner of Tehran, has begun to move closer to the American position.
“It is clear that Iran is getting near to possessing a potential which in principle could be used to make a nuclear weapon,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Russian state television July 12.