Hugh Tomlinson – The Australian March 31, 2011
A nuclear scientist at the centre of a spying row last year between Iran and the US has been jailed in Tehran and could face the death penalty.
Shahram Amiri, who returned to Iran in July after apparently defecting to the US, is under investigation for divulging secrets about Iran’s clandestine uranium-enrichment program, The Times has learnt.
Sources inside Iran have confirmed Mr Amiri’s arrest. If convicted of treason, he will almost certainly be executed.
The arrest adds a twist to this mysterious tale of claim and counterclaim. Mr Amiri, 33, was given a hero’s welcome when he returned to Iran last year, with the regime claiming he had been a double agent leaking false information to the US.
The physicist vanished during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June 2009. He had worked at Tehran’s Malek Ashtar University, closely connected with the Revolutionary Guard and a centre for nuclear research.
US media reported he had defected in a long-planned CIA operation. Tehran accused Saudi intelligence of kidnapping Mr Amiri and handing him to the Americans. The CIA declined to comment. The operation blundered when US intelligence failed to extract Mr Amiri’s wife and son to join him.
Angered by this betrayal, Mr Amiri reached out to Tehran in a series of bizarre videos released on YouTube and broadcast on Iranian state television. Sources in Tehran say his family was placed under enormous pressure, with the regime threatening to arrest his wife and kill his son.
Mr Amiri said in the videos he had been kidnapped and drugged by American and Saudi agents and smuggled to the US, where he had been tortured.
In July, he walked into the Iranian interests section of the Pakistani embassy in Washington and sought refuge, saying he was on the run from the CIA. In fact it is believed he was dropped off outside the building. US State Department officials dismissed his story as a “fairytale”.
Mr Amiri was reunited with his family amid joyful scenes at Tehran airport, the regime claiming an intelligence coup over the US.
His arrest will test even Tehran’s formidable powers of spin. Washington has also been embarrassed by the Amiri affair, concerned that the scientist’s plight will damage efforts to persuade further officials to defect.
Also see: ‘Abducted’ scientist returns to Iran