- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Is he a fickle defector or an unhidden hostage?

Whichever is true of Shahram Amiri, one thing is certain: He is an international man of mystery.

Monday evening, Mr. Amiri turned up at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., saying he wants to return home — to Iran. He is an Iranian nuclear scientist who Tehran says was kidnapped by U.S. agents in Saudi Arabia a year ago.

In a YouTube video, Mr. Amiri himself says he was kidnapped. But in a later video, he says he’s living freely in the U.S. And in a third video, he says, no, he really has been kidnapped.

Mr. Amiri showed up Monday at the Iran Interests Section office on Wisconsin Avenue, where he is seeking refuge. U.S. and Pakistani officials say he is seeking immediate repatriation to Iran.

A researcher of radioactive isotopes at Tehran’s Malek Ashtar University, Mr. Amiri is thought to have in-depth knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program. He disappeared while on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June 2009.

U.S. officials have denied Iranian charges of abducting the scientist.

In March, ABC News reported that Mr. Amiri had defected and had provided valuable information about the Iranian nuclear program to the CIA.

State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Mr. Amiri has been in the U.S. “of his own free will, and he is obviously free to go.”

“In fact, he was scheduled to travel to Iran yesterday but was unable to make all of the necessary arrangements to reach Iran through transit countries,” Mr. Crowley said, adding that Mr. Amiri traveled to the Iran Interests Section on his own.

The U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Iran soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. As a result, the Iran Interests Section is operated under the auspices of the Pakistani Embassy, but the office is run by Iranian diplomats.

Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy, noted that the office works independently of his country’s embassy and that its primary purpose is to provide consular services to Iranians.

State Department officials have been in touch with the Pakistani Embassy in connection with Mr. Amiri’s case.

Three videos posted on YouTube in June provided contradictory stories for Mr. Amiri’s presence in the U.S.

In the first clip, a man claiming to be Mr. Amiri said he was kidnapped by U.S. and Saudi agents while on pilgrimage in the Saudi city of Medina and that he now is living in Arizona.

A second clip, posted hours later, showed him declaring he is happy and living freely in the U.S.

In the third video, which was broadcast by Iranian state TV on June 29, a man claiming to be Mr. Amiri says: “I, Shahram Amiri, am a national of the Islamic Republic of Iran and a few minutes ago I succeeded in escaping U.S. security agents in Virginia.”

“Presently, I am producing this video in a safe place. I could be rearrested at any time,” the man says. He describes the second video as “a complete fabrication.”

“I am not free here and I am not permitted to contact my family. If something happens and I do not return home alive, the U.S. government will be responsible,” he says, urging Iran to press the U.S. for his release.

“I was not prepared to betray my country under any kind of threats or bribery by the U.S. government,” he adds.

Mr. Amiri’s presence in Washington has added a twist to his tale.

Iranian state radio reported that Mr. Amiri said in a telephone interview from Washington that the U.S. government wanted to quietly return him to Iran to “cover up this abduction.”

“After my comments were released on the Internet, the Americans realized that they were the losers of this game,” he was quoted as saying.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject, said that “Amiri’s actions — his multiple videos and now his trip to the Iranian interests section — clearly prove he was not held in the United States against his will.”

“He came to this country freely, he lived here freely, and he has chosen freely to return to Iran. The United States, to be sure, isn’t standing in his way,” the official said. “He himself gives the lie to the idea he was tortured or imprisoned. He can tell any story he wants, but that won’t make it true.”

Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs for the Congressional Research Service, said he thinks the Iranian regime put significant pressure on Mr. Amiri’s family, which prompted him to rethink his defection.

“In order to relieve that pressure on his family, he began giving media interviews to the effect that he was maybe kidnapped or taken against his will, and debunking the story that he defected,” Mr. Katzman said.

Iran on Tuesday interpreted Mr. Amiri’s arrival at its office in Washington as a victory over the U.S.

The semiofficial Fars News Agency said Mr. Amiri’s plans to return to Iran were a “defeat for the Americans in their intelligence-security actions against Iran.”

“With intelligence and media activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the U.S. government had to retreat and handed Amiri over to the Interest Section Office of Iran in Washington,” the news agency said.

Should Mr. Amiri return to Iran, reports claiming his cooperation with U.S. intelligence are likely to get in the way of his safety.

The Iranian government will not take kindly to the fact that he was possibly divulging information to the U.S., Mr. Katzman said. “There is reason to believe that they might treat him very harshly.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Washington that Mr. Amiri is free to leave the U.S.

“These are decisions that are his alone to make,” she said. “In contrast, Iran continues to hold three young Americans against their will, and we reiterate our request that they be released and allowed to return to their families on a humanitarian basis.”

Mrs. Clinton was referring to the case of three U.S. hikers who were arrested in Iran last summer on charges of crossing the border illegally from Iraq. Iranian officials have accused the three — Sarah Shourd, 31; Shane Bauer, 27; and Josh Fattal, 27 — of spying. They are being held at Tehran’s Evin Prison.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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