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Amiri’s side of the story

Amiri’s side of the story

On 10:50 Tuesday night, Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri boarded Qatar Airways flight 52, bound for Doha. When he arrives at 6:30 Wednesday evening Qatar time, he’ll board another plane to Tehran, his home.

The details of Amiri’s life since the last time he was in Iran, 14 months ago, are sure to remain in dispute for some time. In an interview aired on Iranian state television Wednesday, Amiri accused U.S. and Saudi agents of kidnapping and drugging him while he was on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, eventually taking him to the United States. In another video released last month, however, Amiri claimed he was in the United States voluntarily and studying for a doctorate.

According to one source who spoke extensively with Amiri before he left the United States, his current story is the following: When he was in Medina, Saudi Arabia, in June 2009, a van pulled up as he was leaving his hotel room on the way to the mosque, and men he didn’t know forced him into it.

The next sequence of events is hazy, according to Amiri’s account. He says he must have been drugged, because the next thing he remembers is being in Washington, D.C., and in the custody of unspecified American intelligence organizations. They allegedly moved him around the country over the next 14 months, and he says that he spent much of his time in Arizona as well as Washington.

Amiri claims that he didn’t give U.S. intelligence officers any information, and was caught by surprise when, on Monday night, he was taken out of his secret hiding location and put in a cab. The cab drove straight to the Iranian interests section in Georgetown, which is supervised by the Pakistani Embassy. A U.S. government car trailed the cab, he claims.

Amiri’s alleged captors did not torture him physically, he now says, but they did abuse him "emotionally," placing him under great mental strain during his captivity. He did not talk about how or why he was able to produce three YouTube videos and publish them on the Internet.

According to two diplomatic sources close to the issue, the most plausible explanation is that Amiri defected willingly to the United States, but at some point decided he wanted to return to Iran. U.S. intelligence officers may have also decided that holding him was not yielding the benefits commensurate to the costs, and put him out. Under this theory, Amiri is now trying to restore his place in the system of the country he betrayed, while concocting a cover story about being kidnapped.

Amiri has a wife and son who still live in Iran. One source speculated that the Iranians could be threatening his family in order to coerce him to relate his current version of events. That would at least explain why Amiri is taking the huge risk of placing himself back into the hands of the Iranian regime.

Surrounded by Iranian minders during his meetings Tuesday with foreign officials who visited the interests section before going to the airport, Amiri told them he was happy to be going back to Tehran and relieved to be joined again with his Iranian friends. Appearing upbeat but nervous, he answered questions on Tuesday carefully and denied that he was being coerced to tell this latest version of the events surrounding his disappearance.

Our source said he got tripped up on questions that he wasn’t prepared for, which some in the room took as a signal he wasn’t being honest, and was trying hard to avoid contradicting himself as he told his tale.

Amiri’s story conflicts with what little information the State Department has released regarding the case. For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that Amiri came to the U.S. of his own free will and leaves on his own accord. "He’s free to go, he was free to come, these decisions are his alone to make," she said.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that Amiri got to the Iranian interests section on his own. What seems clear is that the Iranians were ready for him: His travel back to Tehran was already being planned when he arrived.

In the absence of hard facts, rumors regarding Amiri’s return to Iran continue to swirl. One source speculated that there may have been a swap deal between Iran and the United States, whereby Amiri would return to the Islamic Republic and then, sometime in the near future, Iranian officials would release the three American hikers they have held since July 2009, or even ex-FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran in 2007.

Until the Obama administration gives a full account of its side of the story, Amiri’s tale of the last 14 months of his life will be the only version of events that the public will hear. State Department officials continue to dance around the U.S. government’s connection with him, and the circumstances leading to his departure.

"He has been in the United States, you know, for some time," Crowley said at Tuesday’s briefing. "The United States government has maintained contact with him. I can’t tell you specifically when he made this decision to return, you know, to Iran, but as we indicated today and as the secretary mentioned a bit ago, he’s here of his free will and he’s — this is his decision to depart, and we are helping to facilitate that departure."

"We didn’t seize him and bring him here, and we’re not preventing him from returning to Iran," Crowley said. "That is how we do things here in the United States."