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Society & Culture

The Saga of Shahram Amiri: Nuclear Scientist, Spy, Defector, Son

August 11, 2016
Reza HaghighatNejad
40 min read
Billboard Announcing Shahram Amiri’s Death and Funeral
Billboard Announcing Shahram Amiri’s Death and Funeral
Shahram Amiri and His Family on His Return to Iran in 2010
Shahram Amiri and His Family on His Return to Iran in 2010
  • Were there two or more Shahram Amiris

  • Was he a double agent?

  • Did Saudi Arabia, working with the CIA, abduct him? Or was this merely a propaganda tactic on behalf of Iranian officials?

  • If Amiri had valuable information and Iranian officials knew it, why did it do nothing to protect him and prevent the US from gaining access to Iran’s nuclear secrets? 

  • Were US and Iranian officials deceived and caught off guard, leading them to issue denials and accusations to save face?

  • Two contradictory videos were released on the same day, adding further twists to the case. These were followed by further videos, one thought to be fabricated by Iranian officials.

    The mystery around Shahram Amiri, the Iranian nuclear scientist who was executed on Wednesday August 3, continues to intensify. 

    One of the central questions is whether there were in fact two Shahram Amiris, a supposition that is backed by some media reports. Also crucial is the question of whether he was abducted by US officials during a trip to Saudi Arabia, and if so, why the Iranian government let it happen. Furthermore, a a series of contradictory videos — some posted on YouTube and others broadcast on Iranian television — raise the question of whether US officials tortured him, whether Iranian intelligence agencies pressured him and his family and fabricated some of his statements, or whether he was acting of his own volition.

    The story goes back seven years, and raises perplexing questions, the result of often contradictory information mostly disseminated by Iranian intelligence agencies to the media. And when anyone — whether they be a journalist, analyst or political commentator — draws a conclusion about what really happened to Shahram Amiri, a new scenario with new twists presents itself. At best, accounts of Amiri’s case are complicated and obfuscated. At worst, they are unreliable and even ridiculous. 

    So what really happened? Are there really two or more Shahram Amiris? Was he abducted? Was he tortured? Are the events that unfolded in 2010 part of an intelligence war between the US and Iran? Or was it all part of an attempt to control how government officials of both countries were perceived in the public eye? 

    On October 7, 2010 the website Mashregh News, which is close to Iranian security agencies, quoted the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. The paper speculated that a “super-secret” inmate at Israeli Ayalon prison might be Shahram Amiri. [Persian link.] But Amiri had returned to Iran on July 15, 2010 — and welcomed as a hero. Could this have been an error in translation on the part of Mashregh News — which failed to specify the date the report was published and to point out the discrepancy with Amiri’s return to Iran? Or was the publication referring to another Shahram Amiri altogether?

    The First Shahram Amiri: A teacher with minimal knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program

    Shahram Amiri was born on October 8, 1977 in the western provincial capital of Kermanshah. He studied nuclear medicine and most probably held a Master’s degree, although announcements of his death earlier this month referred to him as “Dr. Shahram Amiri.” Iranian newspapers have variously described Shahram Amiri as everything from a technician to a nuclear scientist. He himself had said that he had gone to the United States to study nuclear medicine.

    It was reported that he worked for Malek-Ashtar University of Technology, which is associated with Iran’s Ministry of Defense and the Revolutionary Guards. According to member of parliament Aladdin Boroujerdi, Amini’s knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program was limited and not specialist — basic information that he taught his students. However, on July 19, 2010 a “reliable source” told Javan newspaper that Amiri had possessed “controlled information,” though it did not offer a definition of what that phrase actually meant.

    Iranian media first mentioned Shahram Amiri on September 6, 2009. His wife told Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) that she had lost contact with her husband a few days after he traveled to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for a Haj pilgrimage. [Persian link.] Before contacting ISNA, she said, she had appealed to the Iranian Foreign Ministry and the Haj Organization but had received no information as to his whereabouts.

    A day later, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hasan Ghashghavi confirmed that the Saudi government had verified Amiri’s disappearance. Amiri had arrived in Saudi Arabia at 10:30 am on May 31, 2009 on Iran Air’s flight 1571, Ghashghavi confirmed. He had been staying at Nasr Al Salam Hotel in Medina and had disappeared on June 3.

    The Second Shahram Amiri: The Nuclear Expert 

    On July 17, 2010 the conservative Jahan News website reported [Persian link] that a person by the name of Shahram Amiri did work for the Iranian nuclear program, and that that US officials were trying to track him down. The report added that the Amiri who had been abducted in Saudi Arabia was not the same person and that “he could not have had any specific information about Iran’s nuclear activities.” The suggestion was that the conflicting reports and contradictory dates were suspected to all be a result of a case of mistaken identity.

    On July 19, 2010 Javan again cited the “reliable source” that had previously claimed Amiri had possessed “controlled information” [Persian link]. The source said Amiri had confirmed that Israeli officials had contacted him at least twice, compared Amiri’s case with that of Masoud Ali Mohammadi, the nuclear scientist who was assassinated in January 2010, and said that western intelligence agencies had been trying to capture both of them. He also said that, since 2005, the US government, aided by Israel, had actively initiated “nuclear brain drain” from Iran. Iranian officials had found out about the project via what they only described as a“third country.”

    On December 12, 2009 the United Kingdom’s Sunday Telegraph published a report that appeared to be about the “second” Shahram Amiri. “Shahram Amiri briefed United Nations nuclear monitors in a clandestine meeting at Frankfurt airport just hours before they flew to Iran to inspect a hidden uranium enrichment plant,” the report, which quoted French intelligence sources, said. “Amiri's intelligence about its inner workings — and especially security procedures — proved ‘extremely useful’, a source close to France's overseas secret service, the DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure), told The Sunday Telegraph. French agents party to details of the Frankfurt meeting paint a picture of Amiri as one of the brightest young nuclear physicists of his generation, westernized and a good English-speaker.”

    The picture that emerges from the Sunday Telegraph report does not match the description of Amiri that later appeared in newsreels. In July 2010, in an interview with Iranian state television [link to Persian video], Amiri himself said that he was not fluent in English and had used the services of an interpreter while in the US. According to the same report, “The agency [the CIA] made contact with the scientist last year when Amiri visited Frankfurt in connection with his research work...A German businessman acted as go-between. A final contact was made in Vienna when Amiri travelled to Austria to assist the Iranian representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Shortly afterwards, the scientist went on pilgrimage to Mecca and hasn't been seen since.”

    No Security “Umbrella”

    One key question is: If Amiri was in possession of key information about Iran’s nuclear program, why did Iran allow somebody as important as this second Shahram Amiri to travel to Saudi Arabia by himself and without protection?

    Quoting an informed source, the semi-official government news agency Fars reported on June 12, 2010 [report in Persian] that upon arriving at the airport, Saudi officials had asked Amiri “specific questions” that indicated that they had been waiting for him. This account was reiterated in the August 7, 2016 report from Fars: “Upon arriving at Jeddah airport, Saudi security agents detained him for a number of hours and interrogated him,” it reported [Persian link].

    Judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei's comments on the same day denied there were two Amiris, and said that, unbeknownst to the US, Iran had discovered that Amiri had been spying for the US. “They got him to Saudi Arabia with a specific plan in mind,” he said, “unaware that all events were taking place under the magnifying glass of [Iran’s] intelligence system.”

    But again, why would Iran fail to protect somebody as potentially important as Amiri? Why, if they knew Israeli officials had made contact with an Iranian nuclear scientist, was he left alone? If Iran knew that he was going to Saudi Arabia to meet with US officials, why would it officially announce that he had been abducted? Why did Iranian officials not break the news themselves, and why was it Amiri’s wife who told the ISNA news agency about what happened?

    Shahram Amiri’s mother Mahtab Vahidi Rad told Radio Farda that Iranian officials ordered her family to stand outside the Saudi embassy in Iran on a daily basis, shouting that Saudis had abducted him. Her comments represented the family’s first account of the pressure Iranian officials allegedly put on the family. Why did Iranian officials adopt such a plan of action when they could have simply come out with the news and pursue the matter through official channels? Considering that Mohseni Ejei claimed that Iran had known about the affair from the start, the most likely answer would be that it had been all part of a deliberate intelligence game. The same could be said for the hero’s welcome Shahram Amiri received when he returned to Iran on July 15, 2010. In a TV interview [link to Persian video] given after returning to Iran, Amiri himself said that he was simply a link in an intelligence chain.

    Four or More Shahram Amiris?

    From the dense jumble of reports, claims and public statements, it could be argued that there were not merely two Shahram Amiris — but maybe even four or more.  

    1. The nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri who escaped the grasp of US intelligence agents;

    2. The nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri who had been in contact with the Americans before traveling to Saudi Arabia with the knowledge of Iranian officials;

    3. Shahram Amiri, a researcher who was mistaken for a nuclear scientist of the same name and who became entangled in an Iranian intelligence game; and

    4. Shahram Amiri, a researcher who had known about the nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri and who embarked on a plot to trick US officials and sell them bogus information.

    But with this in mind, further scenarios emerge, adding new levels of confusion, political intrigue and alleged bribery plots.

    The “death laptop” — but did US officials have the right guy? 

    “This was an intelligence war,” an informed source told the newspaper Javan on July 19, 2010. “He [Amiri] was managed and guided.” The same view was recently reiterated by judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei. According to him and other intelligence officials, from the start, Amiri had been part of an elaborate political game, whether he wanted to be or not. The same source told Javan that Iran hoped to acquire information from inside the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and had succeeded in its pursuit. It is not clear what kind of information Iran was seeking, and what officials actually obtained.

    In 2005, when Iran’s domestic media, then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards paid ample attention to the Shahram Amiri affair, there was a lot of talk about the so-called “death laptop.” According to an article published by the New York Times on November 13, 2005, “In mid-July [2005], senior American intelligence officials called the leaders of the international atomic inspection agency to the top of a skyscraper overlooking the Danube in Vienna and unveiled the contents of what they said was a stolen Iranian laptop computer....The Americans flashed on a screen and spread over a conference table selections from more than a thousand pages of Iranian computer simulations and accounts of experiments, saying they showed a long effort to design a nuclear warhead, according to a half-dozen European and American participants in the meeting.”

    In summer 2008, Iran sent a 117-page response [Persian link] to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a response that met with considerable suspicion. From the beginning, Iranian officials claimed the information US officials had accessed on the laptop had been faked. And, with the Shahram Amiri affair being so prominent in the news, Iranian officials appeared to have come up with a new theory as to what had happened: The Americans wanted to find someone who would point the finger at Amiri, saying he was responsible for handing the laptop over to the CIA. They abducted Shahram Amiri with this purpose in mind — and to prove that the data Iranian officials said was was falsified was actually genuine.

    On June 12, 2009 Fars News, quoting “informed sources,” reported that the CIA had been under the false impression that Shahram Amiri had been involved in Iran’s nuclear program and could provide them with useful information — but that, after questioning him and subjecting him to a lie detector test, officials realized he was not able to offer them any useful information. Then, the Fars report added, CIA agents tried to bribe Amiri, claiming (hehad had taken refuge in the US voluntarily and that he was well informed about the Iranian nuclear program. The sources did not know or did not divulge who had convinced the CIA that Amiri knew valuable information about the Iranian nuclear program.

    Shahram Amiri himself produced a similar story after his return. On July 14, 2010, in an interview with state-run Central News Unit [Persian link], he claimed that the Americans had put him under intense psychological pressure to tell a US media outlet that he did have vital information and handed over the laptop. On June 12, 2010 Aria News Agency reported [Persian link] that Iranian intelligence had got their hands on a recording that proved American officials had offered $10 million to Shahram Amiri to appear on CNN and say that he had traveled to the US voluntarily.

    On the whole, it would appear that the Iranian intelligence apparatus was trying to exploit the case of Shahram Amiri in order to destroy the credibility of the information found on the laptop. But the ploy was unsuccessful, and questions about the “Possible Military Dimensions” (PMD) of the Iranian nuclear program were finally settled within the framework of the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2015.

    But there were a number of other possible scenarios as well. In November 2007, the American National Intelligence Council (NIC), which is composed of 16 intelligence agencies including the CIA, published a report as part of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) framework. It said that Iran had stopped working on building a nuclear weapon in 2003 (find the PDF version of the report here.) Newspapers including the New York Times reported that the NIE report was compiled with the help of Shahram Amiri. “While still in Iran,” a New York Times report published on July 15, 2010 said, “he was also one of the sources for a much-disputed National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s suspected weapons program, published in 2007, the officials said. For several years, Mr. Amiri provided what one official described as ‘significant, original’ information about secret aspects of his country’s nuclear program, according to the Americans.”

    In general, the NIE report was beneficial to Iran. Was it Amiri’s information that convinced the NIC that Iran had stopped or downgraded the military dimensions of its nuclear program? If so, he had provided a positive service to the Islamic Republic. If he had actually done this, then Amiri was working as an Iranian agent with a mission to make contact with American intelligence agencies. Also, considering that the NIE report was published in November 2009, Amiri must have had access to restricted nuclear information and been in contact with the CIA for at least a couple of years in order to provide them with such information. But if that was the case and he was operating with the permission of Iran, they why would Iran throw a successful intelligence agent into a byzantine adventure outside its borders?

    Was Shahram Amiri Abducted?

    After Shahram Amiri’s disappearance made the news, Iran pointed the finger at Saudi Arabia and claimed that Al Mukhabarat, the kingdom’s main intelligence agency, had been working hand-in-hand with the CIA. In October 2009, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki accused the US of involvement in his disappearance. “We hold Saudi Arabia responsible for Shahram Amiri’s situation, and consider the US to be involved in his arrest,” he said. On October 27, President Ahmadinejad echoed that accusation.

    Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia denied the allegation. “The Saudi Foreign Ministry has said that it is stunned by Iranian declarations and allegations about the disappearance of the Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri in Saudi Arabia as well as claims that Riyadh handed him over to Washington,” reported the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat on December 9, 2009. A Foreign Ministry spokesman told the paper that “after having received information about his disappearance, Saudi authorities searched for Amiri in Medina and all the hospitals and hotels and [shopping] centers in Mecca and even where he was staying, and yet he was not found.”

    During this time, the US government denied the accusations and refused to comment further. Only when Amiri was about to return to Iran did then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton say, “Mr. Amiri has been in the United States of his own free will” and: “he’s free to go, he was free to come; these decisions are his alone to make.” Despite this denial, it appears likely that Shahram Amiri did not go to the United States on a normal flight. Otherwise his flight number or other information about the flight would probably have surfaced by now.

    Member of Iranian parliament Aladdin Boroujerdi said that Amiri had been flown to a military base and then to the United States. But if this is true, it is not clear why the US government appealed to Saudi Arabia to help bring Amiri to the US.

    Did Amiri Possess Nuclear Information?

    Reports about Shahram Amiri’s stay in America are confusing and contradictory. In July 2010, an unnamed American official told the BBC that Amiri had “provided useful information to the United States. The Iranians now have him,” he said. “In terms of win-loss, it's not even a close call.” The BBC also quoted American officials as saying that “he apparently became concerned for family members he had left behind, had a breakdown and decided to return to Iran.”

    On March 30, 2010 the American TV network ABC reported that American officials considered the defection of Shahram Amiri to be “an intelligence coup” and that “Amiri has been extensively debriefed since his defection by the CIA, according to the people briefed on the situation. They say Amiri helped to confirm US intelligence assessments about the Iranian nuclear program.”

    The New York Times reported on July 16, 2010 that Amiri had defected from Iran to the United States but returned to Tehran on July 15, 2010. He had, the report said, “been an informant for the Central Intelligence Agency inside Iran for several years, providing information about the country’s nuclear program, according to United States officials. The scientist, 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 officials confirmed.”

    The Washington Post also reported on the case on July 15, 2010. “The Iranian nuclear scientist who claimed to have been abducted by the CIA before departing for his homeland Wednesday was paid more than $5 million by the agency to provide intelligence on Iran's nuclear program, US officials said.” One unnamed US official was reported as saying: “Anything he got is now beyond his reach, thanks to the financial sanctions on Iran. He's gone, but his money's not. We have his information, and the Iranians have him.”

    An Iranian intelligence source told the newspaper Javan on July 19, 2010: “We ourselves told him to accept the $5 million offer.” But why would they do this? Was it because they wanted to downplay the importance of the $5 million so that nobody would think that the information had been worth anything? Or was it because they wanted to share the proceeds?

    The interesting point is that just a few days before Javan’s report Amiri had said in a TV interview that the reports of a $5 million payment were false, and a fabrication on behalf of the Americans [link to Persian video]. Most likely the intelligence source quoted by Javan who said that Iranian officials had encouraged Amiri to take the payment had not seen the interview — and both were moving in parallel toward their own separate destinations.

    But the alternative version of events said that the information Shahram Amiri provided to the Americans was worthless, reiterating a Fars report making similar claims. From time to time, Iranian officials showed interest in this particular narrative and Amiri himself kept repeating it. On April 6, 2010, Agence France Presse reported that Amiri had not played an important role in Iran’s nuclear program.

    “Amiri provided ‘almost no information’ about Iran's nuclear program,” an article published in the Asia Times stated on July 21, 2010 quoting a former CIA official. “But had picked up ‘scuttlebutt’, meaning rumor or gossip, from other nuclear scientists with whom he was acquainted.”

    It is extremely difficult to verify these reports, and they only  make sense if they refer to the “first” Shahram Amiri — the one who, as a teacher, had limited information and non-specialist  knowledge about Iran’s nuclear program  — but not the “second” one who supposedly worked for Iran’s nuclear program. Perhaps the situation is a combination of both: the CIA abducted the wrong Shahram Amiri, but tried to pretend that he was a valuable source of information worth $5 million. Or perhaps he did possess valuable information and the Americans tried to protect him. On the other hand, it would have been extremely important to Iran to present Amiri as a nobody with worthless information.

    Fordow, “Breakout,” and Mixed Messages 

    As well as the media interest triggered by the “death laptop,” another significant event took place a month after Amiri disappeared. It was revealed that Iran had a secret nuclear research facility near Qom called Fordow. The revelation not only raised serious doubts about the American National Intelligence Council’s National Intelligence Estimate report, which claimed that Iran’s nuclear program had been demilitarized, but it also became a significant stumbling block to solving the nuclear dispute.

    In an article published on December 12, 2009, The Sunday Telegraph reported: “Amiri briefed United Nations nuclear monitors in a clandestine meeting at Frankfurt airport just hours before they flew to Iran to inspect a hidden uranium enrichment plant.” IAEA inspectors traveled to Iran on October 24, 2009 and visited Fordow at a time when Shahram Amiri had already disappeared. Nevertheless, Iranian officials including the then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad categorically denied any connection between Shahram Amiri and Fordow.

    In addition, some Western media outlets began to suggest that Iran was very close to “breakout” — meaning it had most of the necessary ingredients and to make an atomic bomb. “Senior staff members of the United Nations nuclear agency have concluded in a confidential analysis that Iran has acquired ‘sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable atom bomb,” a New York Times article reported on October 3, 2009. “The atomic agency’s report also presents evidence that beyond improving upon bomb-making information gathered from rogue nuclear experts around the world, Iran has done extensive research and testing on how to fashion the components of a weapon.”

    The combination of this report, the revelations about Fordow and the “death laptop” made it a hellish year for Iranian nuclear officials and negotiators. It also completely undermined Iran’s agreement with Brazil and Turkey to exchange nuclear fuel as a means of showing that Iran was not stockpiling weapon-grade uranium.

    Iranian reactions to this barrage of negative disclosures and reports were inconsistent and contradictory. Iranian intelligence and security officials seemed to have lost their balance and were unable to coordinate their media policy. As a result, their denials had little impact, even on domestic media. I

    In a press conference on December 15, 2009, Ramin Mehman-Parast, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman at the time, called the news that Shahram Amiri had met IAEA inspectors prior to their visit to Fordow “a fabrication” and added that “nobody has said that Shahram Amiri was a nuclear scientist.”

    Following this, on December 29, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, announced that Shahram Amiri was not working for his agency and he did not even know who he was.2010hardlinerattackwell,

    But earlier, senior Iranian officials, including the parliament’s speaker, Ali Larijani, had referred to him as a . On January 14, nuclear scientist the newspaper Kayhan called the abduction of Shahram Amiri “the first phase of on Iranian scientific knowledge” and referred to him as a nuclear scientist [Persian link]. In June 2010 Fars News Agency he was a nuclear scientist who was paid claimed and said he did not need American money. [Persian link]

    The Video Games

    On March 30, US TV network  reported that Shahram Amiri had defected to the US and was cooperating with the CIA. At the same time, a number of western media outlets reported that Amiri had no valuable information about Iran’s nuclear program. But then, a series of videos were released, leading ABC and other outlets speculation, confusion, and contradictory accounts. 

  • Video 1: Amiri claims the Americans tortured him.

    On June 7, 2010, Iranian state-run TV broadcast a video entitled “Behind the Scenes of Shahram Amiri’s Abduction” [link to Persian video]. In the video, Shahram Amiri said he had been tortured for the past eight months, and that he had been pressured to confess that he had handed over the laptop containing secret information about Iran’s nuclear program to US officials, and to say that he wanted to defect. An “informed source” boasted to Fars News Agency that officials were able to “acquire good information” from the video, although other media described the video as a work of fiction created by Iran’s intelligence agency. Other domestic media reported that Shahram Amiri had taken advantage of the negligence of the US guards where he was being held, and recorded the video in secret.  

  • Video 2: Amiri says nothing of torture, but claims he misses Iran and wants to return

    On the same night, another video was posted on YouTube that completely contradicted the first video’s account [link to Persian video]. In this video, Amiri appeared calm and said he was free but that he missed Iran. He said that he had gone to the US to study but that he wanted to go back to Iran.

    The two videos bewildered Iranian officials enough for Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast to say: “It is in no way clear what Shahram Amiri believes and what he has done.”

  • Video 3: Iranian media say video 2 is false, and Shahram Amiri’s wife gives statement supporting this.

    Iranian media immediately responded to the release of the second video. Fars News Agency called it an American fabrication, and claimed the US wanted to compensate for its failure in intelligence operations. Iranian officials reportedly dragged Amiri’s family to a television studio and recorded a new, third video, which they then posted online [Persian video link.] In the video, which was uploaded on YouTube on June 25 but was broadcast on Iranian television prior to that, Shahram Amini’s wife said that her husband’s message could not be genuine because he was apparently reading from prepared text. The voiceover on the video stated that if somebody like Amiri wanted to talk to his family and was actually free then he would have picked up the phone instead of hiring a professional recording team.

    In both of the initial videos posted on YouTube on June 7, 2010, Amiri addressed his family and said he missed them. Then there were reports that his family in Iran had been put under pressure or even had been taken hostage to force Amiri to say the “right” thing.

  • Video 4: Back to story 1

    On June 29, 2010, a new video appeared online [Persian video link]. In this fourth video, Amiri appears disturbed and says that he had escaped his American guards in Virginia. He emphasized that the second video was a lie and that he had not been free. In this video, he repeats the first video’s story about Americans torturing him.

    The same day Iranian media reported that Amiri’s parents had met with the Deputy Foreign Minister Hasan Ghashghavi. At this point, it appeared that Iran’s intelligence agency was exchanging messages with Amiri and his family in its own way.

    Family Taken Hostage?

    In June 2014 a member of Amiri’s family told the reformist website Saham News: “they had taken all of us hostage...If things go on as they are then I will tell everybody what they did to us in that one month before Shahram returned to Iran.”

    On July 21, an intelligence source told Fars News Agency that reports that Amiri’s family had been pressured was an American fabrication. He said that Amiri had had a “sincere” conversation with his wife, though he did not elaborate on what he meant by this. But officials delivered a clear message when they brought Amiri’s family to the TV studio immediately after the second video had been released. The message to Amiri was: “We have your wife and your child.”

    “If you want to know why Shahram Amiri returned to Iran, you must pay attention to the fate of Saeed Emami’s family,” a reliable source in Tehran told IranWire, referring to the case of the former Iranian deputy intelligence minister said to have committed suicide in prison. “The pressure put on Amiri's family was much higher than the pressure put on Saeed Emami’s family.” 

    In 1999, Emami was charged with masterminding Iran’s so-called chain murders, a series of killings and kidnappings targeting Iranian intellectuals. Emami was arrested amidst public outrage, but it was soon announced that he had committed suicide. Authorities later released a video in which his wife confessed, apparently under duress, that her husband had been cooperating with Israel.

    A person close to Amiri’s family told Voice of America’s Persian Service in November 2015 [Persian video link] that during that time all members of his family, even his child, were jailed in separate cells. According to this source, when the son rejoined the family he was unconscious. If this is true, Iran used the same tactics used on Emami to force Amiri to return to Iran. 

    Before returning to Iran, Amiri recorded two more videos. In the videos, he mainly addressed his family, especially his wife and his son, and promised that he had not abandoned them.

    On July 15, 2010, the day Amiri returned to Iran, the Washington Post quoted American official saying that “he might have left out of concern that the Tehran government would harm his family.” At the time, Amiri said that he recorded the first video while in Arizona, the third video when he escaped his guards in Virginia and the fourth one in Washington DC. In response, a US official said that common sense would suggest that anyone under the control of US intelligence forces would not be able to record and release one video after another.

    The “Return” Theories

    It is reasonable to assume that Shahram Amiri’s personal decision to return to Iran was not enough to ensure he could actually return. Yes, he was probably emotional enough about his family, but what if he was actually prevented from returning? If he was a valuable source of information worth $5 million then why would the US authorities allow him to return? He could have performed a key role for the Americans, and acted as an important witness to US assertions about Iran’s nuclear program.

    As BBC Persian reported on August 7, 2016 [Persian link], some sources believe that Amiri succeeded in deceiving US officials twice: First when he convinced them he wanted to defect, and the second time when he persuaded them that his family in Tehran had been placed under pressure. Of course, this interpretation depends on the acceptance that certain assumptions about Amiri were true — assumptions that are difficult to prove or disprove.

    It can also be assumed that he was not important personally, but that because he was in the US, he could be used in prisoner exchange program. This theory holds particular weight when considering the fact that when Amiri returned to Iran, there was much talk about prisoner exchanges between the two countries. On November 11, 2009, referring implicitly to the abduction of Shahram Amiri, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that if the US was concerned about the safety of its own citizens then it should not violate the safety of Iranians. And, on February 3, 2010 he told Iranian state TV that there were ongoing negotiations about a possible prisoner swap in exchange for several Iranians jailed in the US. However, US National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said the US had not entered into “any discussion with Iran about an exchange.”

    At the time, three US hikers — Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal — were imprisoned in Iran for entering the country illegally, and there were rumors that Shahram Amiri was to be exchanged for Sarah Shourd. The claim was denied by both US and Iranian officials.

    Another theory is that Iranian security agencies wanted to return Amiri to Iran to prevent further negative consequences. A security source told the newspaper Javan that the question of “intelligence prestige” was very much on the minds of Iranian officials. The reports about the US payout of $5 million to Amiri could potentially entice others working in Iran’s nuclear program to defect — and there was little Iran could do to prevent this defection or ensure these people returned to Iran. For Iran, it was essential that Shahram Amiri return. 

    The Day he Returned

    On July 13, 2010 it was reported that Shahram Amiri had taken refuge at the Pakistani embassy in Washington DC, which functions as Iran’s Interest Section in the absence of Iranian-US diplomatic agreements. The Guardian reported that he had asked  to return to Iran. “Following the release of my interview on the internet, which brought disgrace to the US government for this abduction, they wanted to send me back quietly to Iran by another country's airline,” he told Iranian TV from inside the embassy. “Doing so, they wanted to deny the main story and cover up this abduction. However, they finally failed... After my comments were released on the internet, the Americans realized that they were the losers of this game.”

    Immediately, the semi-official Fars News Agency published a story that claimed Iranian intelligence services had supplied Iranian media with ample evidence that the US government had been “forced” to retreat [Persian link].

    But not everyone was convinced — and this included many people in the top echelons of the Islamic Republic regime. “There are many questionable items,” said Aladdin Broujerdi, head of Iranian parliament’s National Security Committee. “How did he get to the Pakistani embassy? We have to wait for Amiri to return to know the facts.” He also suggested that it was unclear whether Amiri was “friend or foe” and that only having him back in the country would help determine that. The then Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki for the most part echoed Broujerdi’s statements. 

    Shahram Amiri returned to Iran on July 15. Talking to reporters at the airport, he repeated his story of abduction and torture — but when it came to the amount the US had apparently offered to pay him, he changed his story. After saying officials has offered him $5 million, he now claimed the US had offered him $50 million to remain in America and “spread lies” about Iran's nuclear activities. Holding his seven-year-old son in his arms, he said “My family had no problems.”

    “Israeli agents were present at some of my interrogation sessions,” he told reporters, adding that he had been threatened  that he would be “handed over to Israel” if he “refused to cooperate” with the Americans. He then went on to claim he was “an ordinary researcher” and had never done any research related to Iran’s nuclear program.

    It seemed that Amiri was doing his best to offer the remaining pieces in the jigsaw created by Iran’s security apparatus.

    The Hero Show

    Shahram Amiri’s return to Iran was treated as a full-fledged national festival. On July 17, under the headline “Savage Cowboys,” the newspaper Kayhan called his return a defeat for the CIA [Persian link]; the newspaper Resalat characterized Amiri’s story and his return as an “intelligence Watergate” for the United States [Persian link]. Pro-regime newspaper Vatan-e Emrooz went so far to say that when Baluchi separatist suicide bombers blew up a Shia mosque in Zahedan, the provincial capital of Sistan and Baluchistan, in retaliation for the execution of their leader, the US was the mastermind behind the attack — apparently this was a ploy to draw public attention away from its defeat over the Shahram Amiri affair. 

    A few days later, there was even talk of making a TV movie about Amiri’s life, and on July 26 the then Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi boasted that Iran had come up on top.

    On July 17, Shahram Amiri was interviewed on TV [Persian video link], reiterating that he had never been to Fordow and Natanz nuclear facilities, knew nothing about Iran’s nuclear program, and that the Americans had abducted him because he had written a scientific research paper and they misinterpreted it thinking that he had some knowledge about the program. “After my negative answers, they thought I was lying,” he said in the interview, “but when they tested me with a lie detector they were convinced that I had no information.”

    He then went on to say that when the Americans recognized that they had the wrong guy they changed tack and told him to take responsibility for having handed over documents. But something else does not hold up in this version of events. Amiri had claimed that when he was denying knowledge about Iran’s nuclear program, the Americans relied on the lie detector before they accepted his word — but, according to him, when they used the lie detector again to verify the was telling the truth about wishing to cooperate with them, they did not pick him up on his lie because “it was God’s will.”

    During the interview, Shahram Amiri was reading from a script, a line-by-line scenario that the Iranian security officials had drawn up for the media in the preceding 10 months. The host of the TV program he was interviewed on even tried to help him follow the script at times, and asked him interrogation-type questions to add to the drama. 

    Predictions of Doom

    Beyond the borders of Iran, however, the narrative was something else altogether — again. “CIA suspects Iranian nuclear defector who returned to Tehran was a double agent,” reported the Sunday Telegraph on July 17, 2010. “Former US intelligence agents have predicted that Mr. Amiri will disappear into prison or even face death, despite the hero's welcome he was accorded as he was met by his wife and hugged his seven-year-old son.”

    The Telegraph report also cited comments from a CIA analyst with “direct knowledge of the case” who wanted to remain anonymous. “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.”

    Another CIA source told the paper he was convinced Amiri’s future was bleak. "Iran's nuclear program is in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards now and they are not a forgive-and-forget bunch. I think he's in a lot of trouble."

    Other western media outlets made similar predictions of doom for Amiri. 

    The Arrest of Shahram Amiri

    The predictions proved accurate. Shahram Amiri was arrested, though it did not immediately make the news. In an interview with the Voice of America broadcast on November 6, 2015, Amiri’s father Askar Amiri said that his son had been arrested shortly after returning to Tehran [Persian video link.] According to Saham News, Amiri was first taken to a safe house in east Tehran. At that time, his family was allowed to meet him on weekends at Talaieh Cultural and Entertainment Complex in east Tehran.

    But after a while, the visits were discontinued and Amiri’s family learned that was being kept in solitary confinement at Tehran’s Heshmatieh Military Prison. In the winter of 2011, the news emerged about his arrest and that fact that he had faced harsh interrogations. In January of that year, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast denied the reports at a news conference and blamed the Americans for starting the rumors. Judiciary spokesman Mohseni Ejei said that he knew nothing about the matter. From that point on, Iranian domestic media simply stopped talking about Shahram Amiri.

    The Death Sentence

    During the news blackout, his family were allowed to have occasional meetings with him. Authorities told his mother that Amiri was their guest, that he was only in “protective custody” to save him from assassination attempts, and that he would be free soon. 

    But in June 2012, the Armed Forces Judicial Organization announced that Branch 7 of Tehran’s Military Court had sentenced Amiri to 10 years in prison and five years of exile at Khash, a city in the remote southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan. The verdict appeared to have been issued some time earlier.

    Amiri’s family met with and appealed to President Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad gave them a letter urging the court to go easy on him, but nothing appeared to have changed. The family continued their efforts in silence.

    On July 6, 2014, Shahram Amiri’s wife witnessed her husband being tried at the military court. He could not walk by himself and was being propped up by two people, assumed to be court employees. When he saw his wife, he shouted that for the past month he had been on hunger strike at the Security Ward of Jey Military Barracks. Saham News reported that as a result of mental and physical torture, he had been kept at a military hospital for a week.

    Amiri’s family decided that it was time to end their silence. On July 18, 2014, they spoke to the media and said they were willing to talk in more detail. The move had some impact, and Amiri’s family was allowed to see him.  

    In September 2014, Amiri’s father traveled from Kermanshah to meet with his son. It would be the last time they would meet.  Shahram Amiri arrived at the meeting blindfolded, and the meeting was cut short. 

    On November 4, 2015, Askar Amir spoke to BBC Persian [Persian text & video link] about his son. During the interview, he said he had had no news of his son for over a year, and described the family’s futile efforts to find out what was happening. Two days later, Voice of America broadcast a video, which was later uploaded to YouTube [link to Persian video]. In the clip, he said that while Shahram Amiri had been in the US, Iranian officials had made promises to him that they later broke when he returned to Iran.

    In July, 2016, Amiri’s family were informed that Shahram Amiri might be executed. But they were also told that the verdict had been sent to Sadegh Larijani, head of the judiciary — and that it was possible Larijani would give Amiri a pardon.

    On August 6, Amiri’s mother Marzieh Amiri told Radio Farda [Persian] that on August 2 at 5:30 pm she visited her son, and had arrived not knowing that this would be anything other than a normal prison visit. But when she arrived, her son told her that this was to be their last meeting, and that he was going to be executed. The day after, Wednesday August 3, Shahram Amiri was hanged. The same day, his body was taken to his home city of Kermanshah.

    Why was Amiri Executed?

    It is impossible to answer this question —  any attempts to do so are exercises in conjecture, and often contradictory ones at that.

    On September 2, 2015 CNN reported that the US State Department had released new emails from Hillary Clinton that “seem to support what State Department sources have long maintained: that Amiri was not abducted, but a defector and a paid informant who changed his mind about helping the US.”

    The article reports that one email, sent by a US diplomat working in Eurasian energy, described Amiri as being hesitant to continue cooperating with the US and that he wished “to leave the US.”

    The emails appear to debunk Amiri’s contention that he had been kidnapped — but only if it is assumed that the State Department was informed about what CIA was doing. In any case, the emails might have convinced Iranian security officials that Amiri had indeed worked voluntarily with the CIA. This conclusion has mainly been promoted by anti-Clinton media in the run up to the US presidential election, and has been disputed.  Any “evidence that Clinton’s private email server played a role in the scientist’s death is dubious, given that his 2009 arrival in the US for 14 months was news in 2010, five years before the State Department released Clinton emails referencing Amiri’s case,” TIME magazine reported on August 9. 

    The prison sentence against Amiri was issued in June 2012, a full three years before the Clinton emails were released. The court could not have based that verdict on evidence that did not yet exist.

    The other conjecture is based on Iranian laws. When it comes to spying and cooperation with foreign government, it makes a difference whether the accused belongs to the military or not — at least theoretically. It is possible that Shahram Amiri was first tried as a civilian. He did work for Malek-Ashtar University, which is associated with the Iranian Defense Department and the Revolutionary Guards. What we do not know is in what capacity. Was he considered part of the military or was he tried as a civilian?

    When he announced that Shahram Amiri had been executed, judiciary spokesman Mohseni Ejei said there had been objections to his 10-year prison sentence. Iran’s penal code declares that “any member of the military who gives military, political, security, economic or industrial secrets related to the armed forces to domestic or foreign enemies or the foreigners and their sources” is considered a mohareb   (“a warrior against God”) who can be sentenced to death. It is conceivable that members of the Iranian judiciary who considered Amiri to be a mohareb persuaded the judiciary to retry Amiri, and that he was then sentenced him to death.

    But there is something else. The judiciary spokesman said that, while he was in prison, Shahram Amiri had not only refused to repent — but had also tried to sell information from inside prison. However, he did not elaborate further.

    Other theories are in circulation, but in any case, the key questions remain. Was Shahram Amiri a prominent nuclear scientist who gave valuable information to the Americans and executed for it? Or was he another Shahram Amiri, a university professor who was hunted down and sacrificed by the Iranian security apparatus as part of their efforts to protect the other Shahram Amiri, the nuclear scientist?

    No matter what combination of variables were at play — whether US or Saudi officials played some role, whether Amiri is partially responsible for his own downfall and eventual death, or whether the saga is a complex case of double bluffs and mistaken identities, available testimonies and other evidence point to the involvement of Iran’s security apparatus at every turn. Whatever the truth, Iran’s security services had something to lose or gain, and did its best to secure its interests. 



Prominent Journalist Isa Saharkhiz Jailed for Three Years

August 10, 2016
Natasha Schmidt
1 min read
Prominent Journalist Isa Saharkhiz Jailed for Three Years