Washington — For the moment, the Iranian scientist who returned to his homeland claiming he was abducted by the CIA is a national hero and a prime player in Tehran’s propaganda war with the U.S.
But after Shahram Amiri’s public role is done, former CIA officials say, he will likely face intense questioning about his defection from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security and a future etched in fear.
Amiri is at the center of a volatile war of words between Iran and the U.S., with each country trading public salvos designed to discredit the other. But his short career as a defector and informant for the U.S. also will expose him to pressure from Iranian officials for information about his American handlers — and to even more perilous questions about his loyalty.
“They will keep him in fear and in doubt as to what his eventual fate will be,” said Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst with extensive knowledge of Iran. “From the private, official Iranian point of view, this guy is an awful traitor. If it weren’t for the public relations aspect, he might have been strung up yesterday already or shot.”
The Washington Post reported on its website late Friday that Amiri for some time had been providing the CIA with information about Iran’s nuclear program while he was still in Iran. The report said he was one of two informants the agency whisked out of the country last year because of concerns that the Tehran government had discovered they were providing secrets.
Amiri was among a half dozen people working inside the Iranian nuclear program that subsequently were settled in the United States and given “reward packages” of money, the newspaper said, quoting anonymous U.S. officials.
On Thursday, Amiri took part in a high-profile news conference in Tehran and stuck to his tale that he was kidnapped by the CIA in Saudi Arabia and whisked to Arizona and held against his will.
U.S. officials countered aggressively, releasing glints of revealing information intended to chip away at Amiri’s credibility.
They have called Amiri’s story a “fairy tale” and said the scientist was paid $5 million to provide the CIA with information about its suspected nuclear weapons program. They have said Amiri, who ran a radiation detection program in Iran, provided the CIA with significant information and had stayed here for months of his own free will.
All of this will make it harder for Amiri to convince Iranian intelligence officials of his claims that he was the victim of a forced rendition — the intelligence phrasing for a stealthy abduction.
How did he manage to escape from the CIA and make a series of videos questioning his treatment, and then make his way to the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, former U.S. officials said, if he was being held captive? Why would the U.S. allow him to get on a commercial flight back to Iran if the CIA didn’t want him to leave?
“It’s unlikely that the Iranians believe his current cover story about being kidnapped,” Pillar said. “There are numerous holes in it. The people in Tehran are not dumb, and they can see through that just as you and I can.”
Eventually, former CIA officials said, Amiri’s value in the propaganda war will wane and he will then face hard questions while under some form of house arrest. Amiri won’t have a lot of room to maneuver because his wife and young son are in Iran, a leverage point U.S. officials say that the Iranians used to lure him back home.
“He will be in huge trouble, and he will be in confinement, of some form, for a very long time,” said Charles S. Faddis, who headed the weapons of mass destruction unit at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center until he retired in May 2008. “I assume they are going to be a little restrained for public relation reasons because this thing has become such a high-profile incident.”