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Spy who gave out Iran's secrets?

An Iranian nuclear scientist at the centre of a bizarre espionage drama arrived in Tehran on Thursday to a hero's welcome, including personal greetings from several senior government officials.

world Updated: Jul 18, 2010 00:21 IST

An Iranian nuclear scientist at the centre of a bizarre espionage drama arrived in Tehran on Thursday to a hero's welcome, including personal greetings from several senior government officials. His 7-year-old son broke down in tears as Shahram Amiri held him for the first time since his mysterious disappearance in Saudi Arabia 14 months ago.

In brief remarks, Amiri told reporters, "I am so happy to be back in the Islamic republic," and he repeated his claims of having been abducted by U.S. security forces.

He said CIA agents had tried to pressure him into making propaganda against his homeland and offered him $50 million to remain in the United States. Amiri also said that he knew little of Iran's main nuclear enrichment site. "I'm a simple researcher. A normal person would know more about Natanz than me."

State-run Iranian television broadcast non-stop stories on Wednesday about the 32-year-old scientist who disappeared last summer and surfaced on Monday night in front of Iran's diplomatic mission in Washington, where he asked for a ticket back to his homeland. Amiri told officials that he had been abducted by U.S. intelligence operatives and had spent much of the past year in Tucson, Ariz., being questioned about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Double whammy

Amiri's reappearance was as mysterious as his disappearance and came just weeks after a series of Internet videos added to the intrigue surrounding the case. In the videos, Amiri claimed alternately to have been kidnapped by the CIA and to have come to this country on his own accord to pursue a PhD.

The case has emerged as a source of embarrassment for both governments. The Obama administration faced the departure of someone whose defection had been considered an intelligence coup. Iran described Amiri's desire to the leave the United States as a setback for American efforts, but Amiri may have compromised the secrecy of Iran's nuclear endeavours.

According to an official familiar with the account Amiri gave at the mission, his pleas to be released were finally granted when he was brought to Washington and sent to a nondescript storefront where Iranian representatives work in a space officially operated by Pakistan's embassy. Within hours of arriving at the mission, Amiri told state-run Iranian television that "my kidnapping was a disgraceful act for America. ... I was under enormous psychological pressure and supervision of armed agents in the past 14 months."

U.S. officials disputed Amiri's account, insisting that he defected voluntarily and provided valuable intelligence about Iran's nuclear programme before increased worries over the safety of his family in Iran prompted him to seek a return. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that Amiri had always been free to go. "These are decisions that are his alone to make," Clinton said, noting that Iran has refused to release three American backpackers detained in the country for nearly a year.

Cloak and dagger

Amiri's case has provided a rare public glimpse into the espionage sparring between the United States and Iran, much as the capture and swap of Russian undercover operatives this month exposed the extent to which such cloak-and-dagger endeavours have outlasted the Cold War. The United States and other nations contend that Iran is secretly developing the means to build a nuclear weapon, but the Iranian government says its programme is peaceful.

Amiri, 32, has said he worked at Iran's Malek-e-Ashtar Industrial University, which U.S. intelligence agencies believe is connected to the country's Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Amiri is not believed to have been directly involved in the most secretive aspects of Iran's nuclear efforts, but intelligence officials said he provided significant insights during lengthy debriefings with the CIA. "I don't think the U.S. government goes to great lengths to help people come over here unless there is significant intelligence value to be gained," said a U.S. official briefed on the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss it. Amiri disappeared under mysterious circumstances in June 2009, about the same time that U.S. officials spoke of an "intelligence coup" involving a high-profile defector.

He appears to have been resettled in Tucson, where his presence was a carefully guarded secret until the scientist appeared in videos this spring. In the first, which aired on Iranian television, Amiri stares into what appears to be an amateur Web camera, claiming to have been tortured and pleading for human rights organisations to intervene.

But in a subsequent and more polished video that U.S. officials said was crafted with help from the CIA, Amiri is dressed in a suit coat before a backdrop that includes a chessboard and a globe turned to the Western Hemisphere. Amiri says he has never betrayed his homeland and asks "everyone to stop presenting information that distorts the reality about me."

Amiri also says he knows that the Iranian government "will take care of and protect my family." U.S. officials said fears for their safety appear to have been behind his decisions to release the videos portraying himself as a kidnapping victim, as well as his effort to return.

"The Iranians aren't beyond using family to influence people," said a second U.S. official, who added that Amiri's ability to appear in the videos, as well as reach the Iranian mission, "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."

On Wednesday, Iranian television presenters and analysts had no trouble drawing a conclusion from the episode. "America has lost," they said repeatedly. "Iran is the winner of this intelligence war."

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