An Iranian nuclear scientist who disappeared a year ago headed back to Tehran on Wednesday, telling Iranian state media that he was abducted by CIA agents who tried to bribe him into speaking out against his homeland. The U.S. says he was a willing defector who changed his mind.
Shahram Amiri's reappearance broke into the open an often-bizarre intelligence drama. U.S. officials have dismissed accounts of a kidnapping and suggested Amiri returned home because he missed or feared for his family. But much in the case remains mysterious, including the exact circumstances of how the defection fell apart and what information, if any, he provided about Iran's controversial nuclear program.
Also unknown is whether the 32-year-old scientist could face any punishment in his homeland after the State Department said he came willingly to the United States and was in contact with the government.
On Wednesday, Iranian state media were heavily promoting the account that he was the victim of a CIA kidnapping, and politicians were declaring a victory over the "terrorist state" America — suggesting that at least for now, the government would rather squeeze the return for propaganda value than overtly retaliate.
Amiri vanished in Saudi Arabia while on a pilgrimage to Islamic holy sites in June 2009, fueling speculation that he had defected and was spilling nuclear secrets. The United States and its allies accuse Tehran of seeking to build a nuclear weapon, a claim Iran denies, saying its program is for peaceful purposes.
His case turned even stranger last month, when Iranian state TV aired a video he purportedly made from an Internet cafe in Tucson, Arizona, and sent to Iranian intelligence claiming U.S. and Saudi "terror and kidnap teams" snatched him. In another, professionally produced one, he said he was happily studying for a doctorate in the United States. In a third, shaky piece of video, Amiri claimed to have escaped from U.S. agents in Virginia and insisted the second video was "a complete lie" that the Americans put out.
U.S. officials never acknowledged he was on American soil until Tuesday, hours after he turned up at the Iranian interests section at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, asking to be sent home. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Amiri had been in the United States "of his own free will and he is free to go."
In an interview with Iranian state Press TV from the interests section before heading home, Amiri elaborated on his abduction account and denied he was ever a willing defector.
"If I had sought asylum (in the U.S.), why did I not take my family out (of Iran)? What was the reason for me to escape Iran and seek asylum without sending my family out first?" he said in the interview, aired Wednesday.
He said he was in the Saudi holy city of Medina when three men in a van posing as fellow pilgrims offered him a ride. "As I sat down, the man in back held a gun toward me and told me to keep quiet," he said. "They took me to a secret place and injected me, and when I woke up I saw myself in a huge airplane" and was taken to America.
There, CIA agents "pressured me to help with their propaganda against Iran," he said, including offering him up to $10 million to talk to U.S. media and claim to have documents on a laptop against Iran.
"I promised myself that I wouldn't talk against my country at all," Amiri told Press TV. Instead, he said, he tried to string the CIA along, letting them settle him in Tucson, where he suggested he had relative freedom there on the condition "I not talk about my abduction or what happened afterward."
But after they discovered he had made the first video, in April, "they relocated me from Tucson to Virginia with guards all around me and until this moment, I've been monitored by armed agents."
"They put more psychological pressure on me. They told me they would kill me ... . They threatened me every time," Amiri said.
U.S. officials would say little about the circumstances of Amiri's defection and what went wrong. But there were suggestions that threats to his family in Iran pushed Amiri to first make the claims he was kidnapped.
Amiri had originally "left his family behind, that was his choice," said a U.S. official who was briefed on the case, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to talk publicly about the case.
Vincent Cannistraro, a retired CIA officer, said he believes Amiri was not recruited by the CIA but volunteered to provide information to the agency about Iran's nuclear program over a period of years before he came to the U.S. Cannistraro said he believed that after Amiri's defection, the Iranian government threatened to harm his son as leverage to get him back to Tehran.
"It certainly was an embarrassment to the Iranian government, and clearly they wanted him back," Cannistraro said.
Amiri, flying home via Doha, Qatar, was expected to arrive in Tehran early Thursday. It is unclear what sort of reception he will receive.
Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said: "For certain, after his return ... we will speak with him about it all in greater detail," Manouchehr Mottaki said.
"We will examine his circumstances. It's obvious it was a kidnapping," Mottaki told reporters through a translator during a visit to Lisbon, Portugal. "We reserve our right to pursue this case as we see fit."
There are relatively few known U.S. cases of defectors changing their minds and returning to their homeland.
Vitaly Yurchenko, head of North American espionage for the Soviet Union's KGB, defected in 1985, only to "redefect" a few months later, claiming he was not a traitor but rather a kidnap and drugging victim. He returned home and was awarded a medal.
Two sons-in-law of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein met a far worse fate. Hussein Kamel al-Majid and his brother, Saddam Kamel, defected from Iraq to Jordan in August 1995, along with their wives — Saddam's daughters. When the brothers returned to Iraq they were killed, reportedly by relatives in Baghdad angered by their betrayal.
Before he disappeared, Amiri worked at Tehran's Malek Ashtar University, an institution closely connected to the country's powerful Revolutionary Guard.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said he does not know what Amiri may have told U.S. officials, but that the U.S. government "maintained contact with him" during his stay in the United States. Pressed whether Amiri was a defector, Crowley replied, "I just don't know the answer."
Keath reported from Cairo, Egypt. Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
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