Riddle of missing Iranian physicist's US 'captivity'

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An iranian nuclear scientist named Shahram Amiri, who may or may not have been abducted last year by the CIA, was reportedly inside a Pakistani embassy office in Washington last night seeking to return home to Iran.

That Mr Amiri, 32, walked into a Georgetown office of the Pakistani diplomatic service which serves as the Iranian interests section in the US on Monday, is about the only reliable thing we know about him. There is mystery about how he vanished a year ago, why he has surfaced now and, as ever, the circumstances of his arrival in the US in the first place.

According to an indignant Iran, Mr Amiri was kidnapped by CIA agents just over a year ago while on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Thereafter, he was allegedly whisked out of the country and to the US to be tapped for information about Iran's disputed nuclear programme.

That was the story rehearsed by a person who identified himself as Mr Amiri in a video that surfaced in early June and broadcast on Iranian state television. In it, the man says he was captured in a joint US-Saudi operation in June last year, taken to a house and injected with a drug and that when he woke he was on a plane to the US where he was subsequently tortured during interrogation. That tape was allegedly made in early April in Tucson, Arizona.

A second video surfaced a day later on YouTube also of a man calling himself Mr Amiri, saying he was studying in the US and was happy to be in the country. Before disappearing, Mr Amiri had been working at Malek Ashtar University, which is linked to the powerful Revolutionary Guards.

His popping up in Washington now, is surely inconvenient for the US and appears to lend credibility to the Islamic regime's version of events.

US officials stuck to their version of events. "He has been in the United States of his own free will and obviously he is free to go," State Department spokesman P J Crowley said. "He was scheduled to travel to Iran yesterday but was unable to make all of the necessary arrangements to reach Iran through transit countries."

That Mr Amiri may have helped the US, willingly or otherwise, in uncovering fresh intelligence on Iran and its nuclear activities seems plausible. At around the time of his disappearance, US officials were speaking of an "intelligence coup" relating to Iran. In September, President Barack Obama revealed at a G20 summit that Iran had built a secret nuclear centrifuge facility inside a mountain near Qom.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, confirmed that Mr Amiri was free to go to Iran and denied he had been held in the US against his will. The US has been pressuring Iran to release three American tourists taken into custody after allegedly straying on to Iranian soil while trekking in northern Iraq and Mrs Clinton was quick to raise their plight yesterday.

"These are decisions that are his [Mr Amiri's] alone to make," Mrs Clinton said. "In contrast, Iran continues to hold three young Americans against their will, and we reiterate our request that they be released."

Seemingly, the scientist has told officials at the Iranian interests section in Washington that he was dropped off there on Monday by his "captors". This clears nothing up, however. If he has indeed been incarcerated all these months how suddenly did he make it to Washington? If, on the other hand, he has been in the US of his own free will, why is he now seeking to go back to Iran and what reception would he be likely to receive there? One theory is that his family may have been pressurised and urged him to come back.

In Iran, the story was being depicted as a humiliation for America. This is the latest "defeat for the Americans in their intelligence-security actions against Iran," ventured the semi-official Fars News Agency. "With intelligence and media activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the US government had to retreat and handed Amiri over to the Interest Section Office of Iran in Washington."

The Iranian-funded English language Press TV, said it had received an "audio message obtained by Iran's intelligence sources" purporting to show that Mr Amiri had been offered $10m "to appear on CNN and announce that he had willingly defected to the United States".

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