Iran Executes Nuclear Scientist Who Defected to America, Then Returned Home

Shahram Amiri, with his son and other family members upon returning to Iran in 2010. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

An Iranian nuclear scientist, who the Iranian judiciary claims gave “crucial intelligence” to the U.S., has been executed, The Guardian reports. The body of 38-year-old scientist Shahram Amiri was returned to his family this weekend, and from the marks on his neck, it was clear that he had been hanged, a fate later confirmed by Iranian authorities. Amiri’s death ends a sad and mysterious spy-drama that started around the time the U.S. and its Western allies began intensifying their covert efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program. In 2009, Amiri, an expert in radioactive isotopes, disappeared during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, leading to Iranian accusations that he had been kidnapped by the West. Months later, Amiri reappeared in the U.S. following an apparent defection facilitated by the CIA, but things only got weirder from there.

Once in America, Amiri published a series of mysterious and contradictory online videos. In the first video, recorded with a shaky webcam and released on Iranian state television, Amiri said that he had been kidnapped in Medina, Saudi Arabia, by the CIA and Saudi intelligence and was being held captive in the U.S. In a second video, well-produced with Amiri sitting next to a chess set, he explained that he was fine and free, and pursuing a graduate degree in America. That video was published on YouTube. In a third video, released on Iranian TV again, Amiri was back to insisting he was in the U.S. against his will, and said he was being hunted by the CIA.

Then, to everyone’s shock, Amiri arrived at the Iranian interest section at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C., and asked officials there if he could go home.

The New York Times’ David Sanger, who has reported extensively on Amiri’s story over the years, tries to construct a final picture of what happened to this “unlikely spy,” noting that he appears to have begun passing along intelligence for the U.S. while he was still in Iran, and was of particular interest to the CIA because, as a specialist in measuring radiation, he had been to many of Iran’s sensitive nuclear sites:

By 2009, the C.I.A. had apparently decided that the chances he would be detected were rising, and offered to get him out of the country. The agency promised him $5 million and a new identity. Mr. Amiri believed his estranged wife would never leave Iran, and he decided to go alone, without his son.

After he was interviewed in Washington, he ended up near Tucson, under the agency’s national resettlement program, which provides cover and protection for cooperative foreign spies. But he immediately missed his young son, and began calling home. Iranian intelligence agencies pressured his family, and by one account threatened to harm his son.

Indeed, threatening family members who are still inside Iran is a tactic regularly used by elements of the Iranian regime when they want to intimidate Iranians living abroad. Sanger also reports that the first online video Amiri made was done at the request of the Iranian intelligence agents. The second video, in which Amiri declares he is free and pursuing a graduate degree, was produced by the CIA. And that video was a lie too, as Sanger notes that “behind the scenes, Mr. Amiri was telling his handlers that he had made a mistake by defecting, and only wanted to return to see his son.”

The CIA warned Amiri that he might be imprisoned or executed, like Soviet defectors had been during the Cold War, but the agency’s resettlement program “has clear rules that if a defector wants to return home, there is no legal basis for the United States to force him to stay.” Amiri thus arranged to go home, but in another twist, when he arrived in Tehran, he was given a hero’s welcome at the airport, greeted by his family and flowers and subsequently celebrated as a kind of double agent, appearing on television to explain how he was drugged, captured, interrogated, and psychologically tortured by Saudi, American, and Israeli agents, plus how he turned down an enormous sum of money he’d been offered to remain in the U.S. There was even talk of a movie being made about his escape.

However, whether he realized it was happening or not, Amiri was also now a political pawn for two world powers. As Amiri was returning to Iran and complaining about his captivity, U.S. officials were telling the American press that Amiri had been paid and offered residence in the U.S. in exchange for information about Iran’s nuclear program, and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to publicly acknowledge that Amiri had been in the country, but had been so “of his own free will” and had been free to leave if he wished. Back in Iran, it seems unlikely that intelligence officials believed the story they and Amiri were selling, and if they did, they eventually changed their minds. So Amiri simply disappeared again, this time into an Iranian prison, where he was probably tortured before being subsequently tried and convicted for treason, all in secret.

It was originally rumored that Amiri had been sentenced to ten years in prison and five years in exile over the alleged spying — not given a death sentence — but the never-transparent Iranian judiciary said on Sunday that Amiri had, in fact, been sentenced to die, and that sentence had now finally been carried out after it had been upheld following an appeal. Sunday’s announcement was actually the first official confirmation of anything regarding Amiri’s fate since he disappeared following his return to Iran; his family had only been able to visit him, early on, a handful of times.

If Amiri’s sentence was changed, one contributing factor could be that he was mentioned in emails released last year by the State Department as a result of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of State. Said one of those emails apparently referring to Amiri, sent to Clinton from a senior aide:

Our friend has to be given a way out. We should recognise his concerns and frame it in terms of a misunderstanding with no malevolent intent and that we will make sure there is no recurrence. Our person won’t be able to do anything anyway. If he has to leave, so be it.

One Iran scholar who spoke with The Guardian, Dina Esfandiary, believes that Amiri’s name coming up in the emails probably led to the change in his situation. “In the Iranian judiciary’s mind, it’s a necessary signal to the U.S. that Iran is aware of their activities in Iran and that this is what is done to those who help the enemy,” she said, adding that, “It’s a textbook spying case.” Republican senator Tom Cotton went even further in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, suggesting that Clinton’s “reckless and careless” use of the private server, and the fact that her emails were eventually made public, put Amiri at risk. However, since Amiri’s likely involvement with the U.S. was well reported back in 2010, and Clinton had already talked about him publicly at that time, it’s unclear why references to him in the released emails would cause Iran to suddenly reevaluate what they surely already knew.

Indeed, as Esfandiary also suggests, another possible reason for the sudden execution of Amiri is that the Iranian hard-liners who control the country’s judiciary and intelligence services are taking a pre-election-year shot at President Rouhani and the wisdom of the trademark nuclear deal his reformist administration worked out with the West — a deal the hard-liners vehemently opposed. Such machinations often intensify in Iran as presidential elections get closer and various internal elements of the government struggle for leverage — and Iranian politics is always more complicated and multifaceted than it is usually portrayed from afar.

As Amiri’s tragic and mysterious story demonstrates, so is international espionage.

Iran Executes Nuclear Scientist Accused of Spying for U.S.