Shahram Amiri – an Iranian Intelligence Pawn
The multi-faced Iranian "nuclear scientist" Shahram Amiri probably is 32 years old. Other than that, no one – in the West, at least – knows anything about him for sure, even after he spent a year and a month in the United States.
Wednesday, July 14, as he headed back from Washington to Tehran via Qatar, the CIA could not be sure he was the real Dr. Amiri, employed at Malek Ashtar University of Defense Technology, whom he claimed to be.
After he landed Thursday at Imam Khomeini airport, the Iranians gave the pot another stir with a statement from Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi: "Shahram Amiri is not a nuclear scientist and we reject it." He is a researcher at one of the universities in Iran.
Malek Ashtar University is closely connected to Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps and its secret military nuclear program. Its rector, a lieutenant general, was named in the UN Security Council's first round of sanctions in 2006 as one of seven people involved in Iran's nuclear program.
But if Amiri is not a doctor, a nuclear scientist or connected to this particular university, what use was he to the CIA?
This is the doubt Tehran is anxious to plant in US intelligence minds in one of the oldest and craftiest Cold War gambits.
Indeed, the undercover contest between the America Central Intelligence Agency and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security -MOIS over the missing Iranian fits a Cold War espionage scenario much more closely than this week's US-Russian spy swap in Vienna.
Amiri was a rare scientific CIA source
In June 2009, Tehran reported that one of their nuclear scientists Shahram Amiri had gone missing from the room he was staying at while on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Thirteen months later, he sought asylum at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, demanding to be repatriated and accusing US and Saudi spy agencies of abducting him.
To this day, US intelligence is not certain of the true identities of Russian agents who apparently defected to the West and then went home, just as they cannot tell if the Iranian they debriefed in the past 13 months was Amiri No. 1, No. 2, or even Amiri No. 3.
In the view of DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence experts, had his defection been for real, the CIA would have chalked up a major coup against Iran's nuclear program and the MOIS, one of the largest clandestine agencies in the world.
The hundreds of news reporters who have followed the Iranian issue, including many in Israel, have claimed that the CIA and Israeli Mossad were able to slow Iran's nuclear progress – primarily, with the help of connections they established with Iranian nuclear scientists.
It was reported that these scientists had been shocked by the discovery of the military nature of these projects into cooperating with the German BND spy agency or the Netherlands General Intelligence and Security Service, AIVD.
But the truth was that no more than one or two Iranian nuclear scientists had agreed to play ball with the West and Amiri was the only one known about for sure.
In his six years with the CIA, he contributed to the "Laptop Documents" coup
According to our intelligence sources, the CIA's ties with Amiri went back six years to 2004, when he used European visitors to Tehran to pass a message volunteering to help the United States in its efforts to stall Iran's nuclear program and curtail its expansionist drive into Iraq and Lebanon.
At first, CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, did not rate the offer very high. But after he successfully carried a number of assignments, including his own transfer from the University of Tehran to Tehran's Malek Ashtar University, the American agency conferred with European and Israeli colleagues and decided to give him more hazardous missions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources agree now that Amiri must have been a key contributor of the thousand-page Iranian nuclear documentation on the laptop computer which the Americans showed nuclear watchdog executives in Vienna in 2005.
As reported in a separate article in this issue, the Americans claimed that these pages were taken from an Iranian laptop computer in mid-2004. They never gave away their sources, beyond citing a long-serving connection inside Iran.
That connection was Amiri, which is most likely one of the few true elements in the blend of fact and fiction surrounding this individual. However, as we shall see, the whole set-up was wide open to question.
Defection or abduction at gun point?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian and intelligence sources report that in the early months of 2008, Amiri began sending distress signals to Washington saying he feared Iranian security services were on to him and on the point of arresting or even killing him. Since the signals were not consistent, the CIA judged he was suffering from the familiar persecution syndrome afflicting spies from time to time.
But in the spring of 2009, when Amiri kept on pushing the panic buttons, it was decided to pull him out. He was told to choose between being picked up from a location in Iran by a special airplane or ship and carried to a Persian Gulf state or staging a pilgrimage to Mecca and being collected there.
Since Tehran encourages its top military, Revolutionary Guards, intelligence and scientific personnel to perform the hajj to Mecca – albeit under the watchful eyes of Al Qods Brigades agents – Amiri's application to join the pilgrimage raised no suspicion – or so Washington was given to understand.
This version ended in Amiri being placed voluntarily on a direct flight from Jeddah to the US capital.
The story told by Amiri to Iranian TV – prior to his landing in Tehran Thursday, July 15 – was naturally quite different. This is how he described his transition from Saudi Arabia to the United States:
"There were three people in the van – a driver, another person in a formal suit and beard, and a third person in the back. When I opened the door to get in and sit down, the person at the back put a gun to my side and said, 'please be quiet, don't make any noise."
The only accurate thing in this account, according to our intelligence sources, was the involvement of Saudi secret agents, who organized and executed the transfer of the Iranian nuclear scientist from Mecca to the special American plane that awaited him in Jeddah.
This is not the same Shahram Amiri
But his bona fides came into question at his first CIA debriefing.
Instead of the efficient Dr. Shahram Amiri they had known for six years, whose reports were always clear and meticulous, they found a confused individual who fell down on the details of his working day at the university or even the simplest information about the buildings there and the work in the various laboratories.
Their Iranian "agent" kept on contradicting himself. From day to day, his behavior became so bizarre that the US agents were forced to conclude that the young Iranian nuclear scientist called Dr. Shahram Amiri had either never existed or the young man before them was a phony.
In either case, Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security-MOIS had tricked them.
As the CIA became strengthened in this view, their analysts had to backtrack and correlate the now questionable data fed them by Amiri with its impact on US and allied policy-making on Iranian nuclear issues; they still need to reassess what it means for their covert operations in Iran and the events leading up to their decision to bring Amiri over to the United States.
Many moves made by the administrations under George W. Bush and, since January 2009, Barack Obama, were based on the information and documents that Amiri provided.
If Amiri was a double agent planted by the MOIS, then Tehran had been able to manipulate these policies and anticipate their course.
Even if real nuggets were mixed in with the false data – a common ruse for making false intelligence appear credible – it still meant that Iran's leaders controlled the flow of factual information to the West and were in a position to change it in good time – so that when Amiri was asked by his US handlers to amplify on a piece of real information, it was no longer valid; Iran had moved on and created a new set of facts, unbeknownst to the Americans.
By misdirecting the West, Iran raced forward out of sight
A striking example of this tactic was the secret enrichment plant in a mountain near Qom, which became the subject of a dramatic joint appearance on Sept. 25, 2009 in Pittsburgh by President Obama, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and George Brown, then British prime minister.
His knowledge was based on data Amiri had relayed to the United States.
Throwing down the gauntlet, the US president gave Iran a two-week ultimatum to come clean on its hidden facility.
In fact, the Qom facilities had been dismantled six months earlier and relocated to a spot never revealed to this day. When the IAEA inspectors turned up, they found empty tunnels.
That is why nothing more was ever heard of the US president's ultimatum.
Only in recent months, have US and allied agencies begun to appreciate that this technique of misdirection has allowed Iran to pursue its nuclear and missile programs out of sight of spies and monitors. While the West and Israel relied on Amiri to keep them abreast of Iran's activities, nuclear development work went forward at still unknown locations and may have progressed a lot further than is suspected in the West.
Each time Iran has exhibited a step forward in uranium enrichment or a sophisticated missile, the West has been shocked.
Two such shockers were produced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January 2010, when he announced in a three-page document presented to the White House, that the US has no plan or means for stopping Iran's attainment of a nuclear weapon, and by CIA Director Leon Panetta, who told ABC television on Sunday on June 27, that Iran has enough enriched uranium to build two atomic bombs – at least one within two years.
Panetta was skeptical about the power of the new sanctions imposed by the Security Council, Europe and the US to halt Iran's progress toward obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The case of a former "redefector"
In other words, it is too late now for the US to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons, a feat in which Shahram Amiri, whoever he may be, was largely instrumental.
And the Iranian intelligence success may owe more than a little to some of the tricks of the trade imparted by close colleagues in the SVR, the former KGB's First Directorate.
It is therefore not surprising that the Amiri affair recalls the classical case of Vitaly Yurchenko, the defector who in 1985, after twenty-five years of service in the KGB, made a fake defection to the United States and fingered two American intelligence officers as KGB agents.
In November of that year, before eating a meal at Au Pied de Cochon, a restaurant in Georgetown, Washington, Yurchenko told his CIA guard, "I'm going for a walk. If I don't come back, it's not your fault." Several days later, the Soviet Embassy called a press conference at which Yurchenko announced he had been kidnapped and drugged by the Americans.
Amiri's "redefection" Thursday drew these remarks from US officials, none of whom agreed to be named: The United States "clearly got the better end of things" in the saga of Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri, and: "We have his insights — original information on the Iranian nuclear program that proved useful – and now the Iranians have him. Plainly, we got the better end of things."
Another official denied Amiri was kidnapped or coerced. "He just wanted to see his family and – unfortunately – he chose a dumb way to do it, lying about what happened to him here to try to build up his credibility back home. He made his own decisions. He chose of his own accord to come to the United States, chose of his own accord who would come with him, and chose of his own accord to leave the United States," the official said.
The epilogue of the Amiri tale may not be as sweet as his heroes' welcome
One senior American intelligence source who declined to be identified acknowledged Amiri had been working for the CIA for more than a year, and was paid $5 million out of a secret program for inducing scientists and others with information on Iran's nuclear program to defect.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources cannot say exactly when the CIA spotted Amiri for a double agent and decided to let him move freely about the United States to see whom he contacted and how Tehran would try and get him back. Our experts' best assessment is that it happened in February or March 2010.
After the Iranian videotape offensive, with different Amiri lookalikes, which began on June 7, 2010 and ended Wednesday, July 14, when Iranian state TV aired a video Amiri purportedly made from an Internet café in Tucson, Arizona, Washington understood that the man whom they debriefed for months could not be prevented from returning to Tehran.
Amiri received a heroes' welcome at the Tehran international airport, proudly declaring, "I was never a nuclear scientist."
He might do well to study the fate of a former "redefector" – the Russian Vitaly Yurchenko. He too was honored on his return home, awarded the Order of the Red Star from the Soviet government for a successful "infiltration operation."
However, this did not stop the KGB from secretly interrogating him in their dungeons, using a truth drug to make sure that he was not recruited by the CIA as a double agent.