Nuclear Scientist Heads Back To Iran

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Details keep emerging in the story of an Iranian nuclear researcher who spent a year in the United States after apparently defecting during a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials say the Iranian scientist turned up at the Pakistani embassy in Washington D.C., which takes care of Iranian interests.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Mary Louise Kelly in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

It's a confusing tale full of twists and turns. It begins with an Iranian nuclear researcher who went on a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia last year. On that trip he disappeared.

LOUISE KELLY: Now, depending on who you believe, he was either kidnapped or defected. He eventually emerged in the United States and was studying for a doctorate in Arizona. Monday evening he turned up in Washington at the Pakistani embassy, which handles Iranian interest in the U.S., and he said he wanted to go back to Iran

MONTAGNE: And that is where he's headed now.

NPR's foreign affairs correspondent Jackie Northam is here to help us make sense of it all.

Good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And Jackie, tell us all you know, at this point, of this young scientist.

NORTHAM: Well, his name is Shahram Amiri and he's a 32-year-old nuclear scientist and he specializes in radiation detection. Analysts that I spoke with say his name is not Islamic as Na Hussein or Mohammad, which means that he most likely comes from a progressive family, perhaps even a secular one. And he's clean shaven and he looks modern, and these are clues for people who closely watch these sorts of things. And they say there's a good chance that Amiri was disaffected by how things are going in Iran, the repression of the government there and wanted to leave.

Anyway, it's believed Amiri went on a pilgrimage to Mecca last summer, in Saudi Arabia, and just disappeared - he vanished - and Iran says that he was abducted by the CIA and perhaps, Saudi intelligence services. The U.S. has denied this but has said nothing more about him and there was nothing heard from Amiri himself, until mysteriously, a couple of videos showed up on the Internet earlier this summer.

The first one shows Amiri and he's looking nervous and he's speaking in Farsi, which is his mother tongue, and let's listen to a little of that tape.

SHAHRAM AMIRI: (Farsi language spoken)

NORTHAM: So in this tape, Amiri backs what the Iranian government was saying, that he was abducted and that he was drugged and he ends up here in the U.S. where he claims he was tortured, and that's something the U.S. disputes.

MONTAGNE: Okay, that's the first tape. Now there was a second tape that appeared shortly afterwards.

NORTHAM: Yes. That's right and it came out very quickly after this first one, and it's a completely different Amiri. He's dressed smartly and it's a highly produced tape. And in this second one, he says that he's safe, that he's free to travel and, in fact, he's trying to get his PhD at a university in Tucson, Arizona.

MONTAGNE: So what is known about what happened between those two very different tapes?

NORTHAM: Well, we understand that he was being debriefed by U.S. officials, but perhaps reality set in. You know, he was alone in Tuscan and he may have entered something akin to a witness protection program. You know, he left behind a wife and now a seven-year-old son, and his family was most likely coming under very heavy pressure from the Iranian government, their passports would've been seized, and he was worried about them.

So the first tape it's believed was a way to appease the Iranian government, so they'd go easy on his family, but it's very hard to say way he made the second video.

MONTAGNE: Jackie, how important a source of information would he have been about the Iranian nuclear program?

NORTHAM: Well, Renee, people I spoke with said that the Iranian nuclear program is highly compartmentalized, so most people who work on the program have a fairly narrow focus. And Amiri was a junior scientist at one facility so it's unlikely he would've had access to top security secrets about Iran's nuclear program. You know, still, he would've been able to provide some information and that's why he was debriefed by the U.S. officials.

MONTAGNE: And then, this last Monday, he suddenly showed up at the Pakistani embassy.

NORTHAM: Yeah, indeed. He showed up actually in the office of the Pakistani embassy here in D.C. which also acts on behalf of Iranian interests, much the same as the Swiss embassy in Tehran acts on behalf of U.S. interests because Iran and the U.S. don't have diplomatic ties.

Amiri made his way to the embassy and he said he wanted to go home. And the U.S. said look, he was free to come here and he is free to return to Iran. And, in fact, the U.S. government helped to facilitate his return.

MONTAGNE: Fascinating. Jackie, thanks very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR foreign affairs correspondent Jackie Northam.

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