Angle of Defection
Was Shahram Amiri's return to Iran politically motivated, or was he just miserable?
Earlier this month, a 63-year-old man was arrested in Seoul by the South Korean authorities. They accused him of spying for North Korea -- and it soon turned out, oddly enough, that it wasn't the first time. The man, known only by his last name, "Han," had first arrived in the South back in 1969 as a commando sent by Pyongyang to infiltrate the territory of the capitalist archenemy. Captured by the South's security forces, he spent a term in jail and ultimately decided to defect. After attaining his freedom, he went on to become a successful businessman and an apparently contented member of South Korean society. There was just one problem: He missed his mother, who never left the North.
Earlier this month, a 63-year-old man was arrested in Seoul by the South Korean authorities. They accused him of spying for North Korea — and it soon turned out, oddly enough, that it wasn’t the first time. The man, known only by his last name, "Han," had first arrived in the South back in 1969 as a commando sent by Pyongyang to infiltrate the territory of the capitalist archenemy. Captured by the South’s security forces, he spent a term in jail and ultimately decided to defect. After attaining his freedom, he went on to become a successful businessman and an apparently contented member of South Korean society. There was just one problem: He missed his mother, who never left the North.
That all-too-human weakness would prove his undoing. Desperate to see her, he ended up making a deal with the North Korean secret police in 1996. They were happy to oblige, and allowed him to meet with his mother in China in exchange for a renewed vow of loyalty to the North Korean regime. It was only this year, apparently, that South Korean counterintelligence uncovered his double game. Han turned out to be involved in an elaborate plot to assassinate another defector by the name of Hwang Jang Yop: a once high-ranking Northern official who had transferred his loyalties to Seoul decades ago and thus earned himself the No. 1 spot on a North Korean hit list.
All this should go to show that the scandalous case of Shahram Amiri — the Iranian scientist who earlier this week announced his decision to return home after apparently defecting to the United States over a year ago — might not be as unusual as some in the media would have us believe. There is, in fact, a long history of prominent defectors having second thoughts — and their examples vividly illustrate the complex ways in which the psychology of loyalty and treason can play out on the level of statecraft. One remarkable post-Cold War collection of CIA case studies, Inside CIA’s Private World: Declassified Articles from the Agency’s Internal Journal, 1955-1992, includes a chapter titled "Psychology of Treason," which dwells in some detail on the tricky subject of defectors. The chapter’s author, Wilhelm Marbes, observes that "Defection, at least on the part of people who are willing and/or driven to commit treason, is an act of strong feelings. Often it is an act of desperation."
In fact, Marbes writes, politics seems to be one of the least important criteria influencing a defector’s decision to switch loyalties: "Contrary to what you might believe, ideology would rank very low on the list of motivations. The reasons are much more likely to be personal, the stuff of soap operas." Most defectors, he notes, are less motivated by lofty political beliefs than by emotional turmoil, romantic entanglements, professional resentments, or family issues. (His "triad of three frequently recurring traits in defectors" includes "immaturity/impulsivity," "sociopathy," and "narcissism.") As Marbes tells it, some early Cold War experiences induced the United States to begin subjecting defectors to medical exams and thorough psychological testing, including polygraphs. Amiri presumably passed a similar battery of tests.
Of course, not even the most sophisticated tests will capture the ebb and flow of a mutable psyche — as became apparent in the case of Svetlana Alliluyeva, daughter of Josef Stalin, who defected to the United States in 1967 and then opted to return to the Soviet Union in 1984, only to come back to America two years later. Alliyueva, whose mother committed suicide in 1932 (possibly because of ill treatment by Stalin), and who herself had many fleeting marriages, isn’t exactly an advertisement for the stability of the defector mindset. And of course there’s Lee Harvey Oswald, who renounced his U.S. citizenship in Moscow in 1959 and then changed his mind in 1962, when he and his wife Marina returned to the United States. For Marbes, Oswald was a classic example of the narcissist defector, the product of a doting mother who expects great things from her child. (It should be said, with historical hindsight, that the Marbes diagnosis isn’t entirely watertight. Some of the Cold War’s most notable defectors, like Kim Philby or Oleg Gordievsky, were spies who clearly had some ideological motivation.)
Of course, as Oswald’s story suggests, one of the hardest things about these inherently ambiguous stories of fluctuating loyalty is figuring out which parts are true. One much-cited parallel to the Amiri case is that of Vitaly Yurchenko, the KGB agent who defected to the United States in 1985. Three months later he ducked out of a Washington restaurant where he was having lunch with one of his CIA minders and hotfooted it to the Soviet Embassy, where he re-pledged his fidelity to the Kremlin. As with Amiri upon his return to Tehran, the repatriated Yurchenko soon found himself at the center of a propaganda operation. He told the press how he had been kidnapped and drugged by the nefarious American spymasters — although, again like Amiri, he was somewhat hard-pressed to explain how he managed to shrug off these ruthless captors with such mysterious ease.
What’s intriguing about Yurchenko’s case is that we still don’t know the truth with any certainty at all. There’s a widespread view that he was actually a "dangle," a fake defector who was still working for his masters in Moscow Center all along. In this version, Yurchenko played along with his CIA interrogators in order to draw attention away from Aldrich Ames, the high-ranking CIA official who was working as a mole for Soviet intelligence. (Yurchenko did betray at least two Soviet agents in the United States, Ronald Pelton and Edward Lee Howard.) Extrapolating from his interrogators’ questions, Yurchenko also could have figured out what American intelligence knew and didn’t know about Soviet capabilities. One Russian source, a writer named Alexander Kouzminov, even claimed that he received the Order of the Red Star, one of the Soviet Union’s highest awards, for his efforts in confounding the class enemy, which suggests he may well have been a double agent — assuming Kouzminov’s report is true.
It certainly could be — but one wonders whether Ames, who had already evaded detection for years, really needed the help. It’s equally possible that personal factors influenced Yurchenko’s decisions. He told his American handlers that one of his reasons for switching sides was simple career frustration. Another was his desire to hook up with his mistress, the wife of a Soviet diplomat stationed in Canada; when his CIA handlers allowed him to contact her, she repudiated him, perhaps triggering his subsequent decision to redefect. But of course, it could have just been yet another elaborately planned cover story. Rightly or wrongly, Yurchenko’s account — which included allegations of forced captivity and harsh interrogations — triggered a certain degree of introspection at the CIA about the alleged insensitivity with which agency handlers were treating their charges. In 1989 another Soviet defector, Viktor Gundarev, even sent a letter to CIA Director William Webster complaining about his poor treatment by the agency and threatening to repatriate if things didn’t improve.
The Soviet authorities’ advertised desire to show leniency to re-defectors — as they did in the case of Yurchenko — undoubtedly made life harder for the CIA. The Iranian authorities, who welcomed Amiri home as a virtual hero (though not without the odd threatening undertone), seem to have borrowed a page from the Russians’ book. But then, so did Saddam Hussein. After Hussein Kamel, Saddam’s son-in-law and ex-minister of military industries, defected to Jordan in 1995, Saddam promised that all would be forgiven if only Kamel and his brother (another son-in-law by the name of Saddam Kamel) would come back home.
At first Kamel didn’t listen. For months, he spilled his guts about Iraqi programs for the development of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons to U.N. inspectors, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the CIA, and just about anyone else who would listen. (Unfortunately much of what he told them — including his assertion that Saddam shut down his WMD programs in the wake of the first Gulf War — seems to have been forgotten by 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq to thwart a threat that, as Kamel had explained, no longer existed.) Ultimately the homesick Kamel — goaded on by wife Raghad, who yearned for her old life of privilege in Baghdad — succumbed to Saddam’s blandishments and drove back over the border. Immediately after their arrival he and his brother were denounced as traitors and ordered to divorce their wives. The two men were then shot as they tried to resist arrest.
It will be interesting to see which history repeats itself in the case of Amiri: Will the government in Tehran decide to follow Mikhail Gorbachev’s example, or Saddam’s? Given the culture of secrecy in the Islamic Republic, we may never learn the denouement of Amiri’s mysterious tale. Of course, in the murky world of redefectors, it wouldn’t be the first time.
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