Missing Iranian Scientist Turns Up In Washington

Iran said Tuesday that a missing Iranian nuclear scientist, who Tehran claims was abducted by the U.S., has taken refuge at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington and is asking to return to his homeland. State TV reported that the scientist, Shahram Amiri, entered the embassy's office representing Iranian interests in the U.S., and demanded an "immediate return" to Iran. Amiri disappeared while on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June 2009. Iran has repeatedly claimed that the U.S. abducted Amiri — charges the U.S. denies.

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An Iranian nuclear scientist who disappeared over a year ago has turned up at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C. This is just the latest twist in the complicated tale of Shahram Amiri.

The Iranian government has long claimed he was kidnapped by the CIA, but U.S. officials dispute that, saying Amiri has been able to move around the U.S. of his own free will.

NPR's Jackie Northam has the story.

JACKIE NORTHAM: The saga of Shahram Amiri has all the elements of a good intrigue novel. The 32-year-old Iranian nuclear scientist is believed to have vanished while he was making a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia just over a year ago.

Iran complained he was taken by the CIA and possibly Saudi Arabia's intelligence service. The U.S. disputed the claim but wouldn't say anything about Amiri and there was no word from the scientist himself -that is until just recently when a video surfaced. In it, Amiri looks disheveled and speaks nervously in Farsi, his mother tongue, and backs up Iran's claims that he was kidnapped.

Dr. SHAHRAM AMIRI (Nuclear Scientist): (Through translator) For the eight months that I've been held here, I've come under the worst torture and psychological pressure from America's intelligence agencies. Their goal with the torture and the pressure was to get me to agree to do an interview with an American television network, to say that I'm an Iranian nuclear scientist who sought asylum here, and brought important documents and a laptop with proof of Iran's nuclear weapons work.

NORTHAM: Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says had Amiri been abducted by the CIA, it's unlikely he would have had the freedom to make videos on the Internet saying he was abducted by the CIA. Sadjadpour says more likely, he was saying that to help his wife and 7-year-old son back in Iran.

Dr. KARIM SADJADPOUR (Iran Specialist, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): His wife and child were not allowed to leave Iran to join him in the United States. And they were apparently under tremendous pressure by the Iranian government.

NORTHAM: Months after Amiri's disappearance, the Iranian government revealed it was building a second uranium processing plant near the holy city of Qom, prompting speculation that Amiri may have leaked that information to the U.S.

Shortly after the first video of Amiri appeared, another one was released on the Internet. This one looked professionally produced with good lighting. Amiri is smartly dressed and appears to be reading from a script. He says he's attending a university in Arizona.

Dr. AMIRI: (Through translator) My agenda while I'm here in America is to simply work on my Ph.D. in health physics. After I'm finished, as long as I'm able to travel safely, I'm hoping that my studies here will help Iranians and the international scientific and university communities.

NORTHAM: Amiri said he's safe and he's free to move around the country. The Carnegie's Sadjadpour says that's not unusual. He says Iran's nuclear program is highly compartmentalized. Amiri is a young junior scientist who probably doesn't have access to top state secrets about the program. Sadjadpour says Amiri isn't as big a fish as other Iranian officials who have defected to the U.S. over the years.

Dr. SADJADPOUR: The case of a senior Revolutionary Guard's liaison with Hezbollah who defected in 2006 and hasn't been heard from since, I imagine he's under very tight surveillance. But I think someone like Shahram Amiri, after they're initially debriefed by U.S. officials, then eventually they're allowed to live their lives. They're not going to be under surveillance for the next several decades.

NORTHAM: Even so, Sadjadpour says Amiri appears to have made the decision to return home to Iran. The nuclear scientist made his way to Washington, and on Monday, showed up at the Pakistani embassy, which represents Iranian interests, saying he wants to go home.

U.S. State Department spokesman PJ Crowley says the U.S. will not stop him.

Mr. PJ CROWLEY (Spokesman, State Department): The United States government has maintained contact with him. I can't tell you specifically when he made this decision to return to Iran, but he's here of his free will and he's - this is his decision to depart. And we are helping to facilitate that departure.

NORTHAM: Crowley says Amiri will leave the U.S. once his travel plans are settled.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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