The Iranian Nuclear Scientist Who Defected Twice?

Mark Stout, SPY Historian

A high-profile Iranian nuclear scientist may have defected to the United States last year.  And today he may have defected back.  What are the implications for American intelligence?

The case is rife with mysteries.  Shahram Amiri disappeared last June while on a pilgrimage in the holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia.  The Iranian government accused the United States of kidnapping him in order to interrogate him about the purported Iranian nuclear weapons program.  In support of this claim, Iranian television last month broadcast a videotape of uncertain origin in which a man claiming to be Amiri said that he had been kidnapped by Saudi intelligence officers and then handed over to the Americans.  Since arriving in the U.S. he claimed to have been “heavily tortured and pressured.”

The American version of the story is quite different.  The United States Government has denied kidnapping Amiri.  In March, ABC news reported that according to anonymous American officials Amiri had defected to the US and that this was a great “intelligence coup.”  Then, the day after Iranian television broadcast its Amiri tape, a video appeared of a man also claiming to be Amiri appeared on YouTube.  This Amiri said that he was in the United States of his own free will studying medical physics but that he remained loyal to Iran.

Clear as mud.  And then today, the press is reporting that Amiri has showed up at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington and asked to be immediately returned to Iran.

At this stage, it appears that Amiri actually did defect and then defect back.  Assuming that to be true, the question arises whether his initial defection was genuine or whether this was a deception or provocation by the Iranian government.  A false nuclear defector could learn a great deal about what the CIA knows about the Iranian nuclear program by taking note of what sort of questions his debriefers asked him.

Obviously much remains to be revealed about this story, but the full truth is likely to remain a matter of conjecture for a long time, perhaps even within the US and Iranian governments.  There are precedents for this sort of event.  In the 1980s, Vitaly Yurchenko, a senior Soviet intelligence officer defected to the United States.  After extensive debriefings, he eluded his CIA handlers and apparently willingly got on an Aeroflot plane heading back to Moscow.  In the 1950s, Otto John, the head of the German equivalent of the FBI, defected to the East and then came back 18 months later claiming to have been kidnapped.  Both of these cases puzzled practitioners and historians for years.  Amiri may soon join that list of intelligence mysteries.

Mark Stout is the Historian of the International Spy Museum.  He spent more than twenty years working in the national security community, serving in the Defense Department, State Department and CIA and working in a Defense Department think-tank.  Professor Stout has degrees in political science, applied mathematics and public policy from Stanford and Harvard Universities and has recently defended his PhD dissertation in history at the University of Leeds.  He is the co-author of three books and he has published or forthcoming articles in The Journal of Strategic Studies, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Intelligence and National Security, and Studies in Intelligence.

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