An Iranian nuclear scientist who had disappeared in Saudi Arabia last summer stepped out of a cab in front of Iran's diplomatic mission in Washington on Monday, asking for a ticket back to his homeland. Shahram Amiri told officials that he had been abducted by U.S. intelligence operatives and had spent much of the past year in Tucson being questioned about Iran's nuclear ambitions.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.Early Wednesday, an Iranian news agency reported that Amiri left the United States for Iran.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 endeavors.
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 on Wisconsin Avenue, 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."
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."
Defectors who return to their native countries risk severe reprisals. In one of the most notorious cases, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law defected to Jordan in the mid-1990s and began providing information on Iraq's banned weapons programs. He and his brother -- another Hussein son-in-law who had defected with him -- returned to Iraq after being promised that they would not be punished, but both were killed within days.
It was not clear whether Iranian officials had allowed Amiri to speak to his family. Iran has insisted that he would return on a Turkish Airlines flight because of Iran's close ties with Turkey. The next Turkish flight to Tehran via Istanbul was scheduled to leave Wednesday afternoon from New York's Kennedy Airport.