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Mystery Surrounds Iranians Turning Up In U.S.

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Mystery Surrounds Iranians Turning Up In U.S.

Middle East

Mystery Surrounds Iranians Turning Up In U.S.

Mystery Surrounds Iranians Turning Up In U.S.

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Iranian Shahram Amiri has been welcomed back to Tehran, but questions continue to swirl around his case — and those of others. Recently it was disclosed that Hossein Mousavian, a senior Iranian official responsible for nuclear negotiations, had turned up in the United States. Mousavian was accused of espionage when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president and even jailed for a short while. Mousavian knows a lot about the views of Iran's top leaders with respect to its nuclear program. He is now at Princeton University. In contrast to Amiri, the Iranian government has been very quiet about Mousavian.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel.

The strange case of the Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri is puzzling and fascinating. Amiri vanished a year ago and was thought to have defected to the United States. But this week he turned up in Washington, claiming that he was abducted by the CIA. He left the United States and yesterday received a hero's welcome when he landed in Tehran.

Even as questions remain about him, there are other cases where Iranians connected to the nuclear program have disappeared and turned up in the U.S.

NPR's Mike Shuster has our story.

MIKE SHUSTER: Nothing is clear about the case of Shahram Amiri. His story now is that the CIA drugged him and abducted him when he was on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia a year ago, and used psychological and physical torture to keep him in the U.S. That was the story he told, at any rate, at a news conference yesterday in Tehran.

Dr. SHAHRAM AMIRI (Nuclear Physicist): (Foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: They wanted me to announce that I had come to seek asylum in the United States of my own free will, he said, and that I handed over some very important documents contained in a laptop, including secrets about Iran's nuclear issue. They wanted to use this as pressure, Amiri said, to implement their political plans and hostile actions which they have always done to our country.

American officials have called this story a fairytale, saying Amiri was a paid informant for the CIA before he left Iran, according to The New York Times.

Indeed, Amiri has refused to provide answers to some nagging questions: How he escaped from the CIA's clutches, how he was able to post videos of himself on the Internet, how he managed to turn up at Iran's diplomatic interest section in Washington.

This has led Iran watchers like Muhammad Sahimi, who writes for the website Tehran Bureau, to conclude Amiri was either an Iranian double agent or his information was of limited value to the U.S.

Dr. MUHAMMAD SAHIMI (Columnist, PBS.org, "Frontline," TehranBureau.com): He didn't know much. At the same time, he had left his family back in Iran and there were unconfirmed report that his family had been threatened.

SHUSTER: Sahimi says he was suspicious from the beginning. Iran's government has imposed strict travel controls on individuals connected to the nuclear program, yet Amiri was permitted to travel to Saudi Arabia where he disappeared.

Dr. SAHIMI: The fact that Amiri was allowed to leave Iran and go to Saudi Arabia already indicated to me at that time that he probably doesnt know much.

SHUSTER: Even Iran's state-controlled broadcasters and newspapers have not played this story up as much as might be expected.

Abbas Milani, director of Iran Studies at Stanford University, believes pro-government media in Tehran have doubts about the story, as well.

Professor ABBAS MILANI (Director, Iranian Studies, Stanford University): There are a whole lot of inconsistencies, in my sense, from the way the Iranian regime has been covering it inside, is that they still dont have the story they think they can keep to.

SHUSTER: In contrast, the case of Hossein Musavian may represent a far more serious problem for Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Musavian was a senior diplomat and one of Iran's key nuclear negotiators in the years preceding the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

When Ahmadinejad took office, Musavian was accused of espionage, leaking state secrets to the British. He was jailed for a short while but exonerated by the courts. Nevertheless, he was banned from working as a diplomat. Now it turns out he has quietly come to the United States. He currently holds a visiting scholar post at Princeton University.

Musavian must know a great deal about Iran's nuclear policies, says Muhammad Sahimi.

Dr. SAHIMI: He has a lot of information about tactics and internal discussions and debates within Iranian leadership about how to approach Iran nuclear negotiations to the European countries.

SHUSTER: Musavian has not participated directly in such negotiations for the past five years. But he is associated with a think tank in Tehran that is close to former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, still a powerful figure in Iran and a strong rival of Ahmadinejad.

Musavian was a government insider, says Stanford's Abbas Milani.

Prof. MILANI: I think he would certainly be in a position to know how they strategize, how their positions were, what their discussions were, what different factions thought about U.S. and other European Union's policies.

SHUSTER: So far, Iran's government has kept nearly silent about Musavian's presence in the U.S., perhaps because it would be highly embarrassing to Iran's government that a figure of Musavian's experience chose to abandon Iran for the United States.

Milani believes that Musavian is unlikely to return to Iran, as Shahram Amiri did, until there are significant changes in Tehran.

Prof. MILANI: This regime is involved in a very intense intelligence war with the United States and with Israel. I think you would underestimate their cunning, their cruelty and their capability at your own peril.

SHUSTER: Musavian would almost certainly face prison if he returns, and it may be the same for Amiri. Iran's foreign minister has already said Iran must now determine whether his claims of being kidnapped are true.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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