Islamabad – An Iranian nuclear scientist, missing for over a year amid claims that he had been abducted by the CIA, has emerged at the Pakistani embassy in Washington apparently asking to be returned home, Pakistani officials said Tuesday.
Shahram Amiri had disappeared during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June 2009. Iran had alleged that Saudis had handed him over to the United States.
A man purporting to be Amiri subsequently appeared in three internet videos. A figure claiming to be him said in one video that he was studying in the U.S., while in another a man calling himself Amiri said that he had been kidnapped by American agents.
Amiri was “dropped off” at the Iranian interests section of the Pakistan embassy in Washington at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Abdul Basit, the spokesman for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad, told McClatchy.
Because Iran and the United States do not have diplomatic relations, Pakistan handles Iranian interests in the U.S.
“He was dropped there by someone,” said Basit. “He’s in the Iranian interests section, not in the Pakistan embassy per se. They are making arrangements to repatriate him.”
The Iranian interests section is located in a separate building, some two to three miles from the Pakistan embassy, said Basit, and it is staffed by around eight Iranians. He said he did not know how Amiri got there or how he would be sent back to Iran.
Separately, Iran’s state radio reported Tuesday that “Shahram Amiri took refuge at Iran’s interest section at the Pakistan embassy in Washington, wanting to return to Iran immediately.”
Amiri, a university researcher who works for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, could have valuable information on the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. According to some reports, Amiri had defected to the U.S. and was helping the CIA.
The U.S says that Iran is secretly trying to build nuclear weapons, while Iran insists that its nuclear development is for peaceful purposes.
Last month, CIA chief Leon Panetta said that Iran had now produced enough low-enriched uranium to make two nuclear weapons within two years. On June 9th, the United Nations security council approved a fourth set of sanctions on Iran as punishment over the nuclear issue.
Iran is alleged to have got technological assistance in the past for its nuclear ambitions from renegade Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.
Last month, the U.S. State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley denied that Amiri had been abducted, saying that “we are not in the habit if going round the world kidnapping people.”
Crowley had added: “If the question is, have we kidnapped an Iranian scientist? The answer is no.”
There have even been suggestions that Amiri, if he was in U.S. custody, could be swapped for three American hikers detained in Iran in 2009.
Earlier this month, Iran handed a dossier of supposed proof that Amiri had been kidnapped by the CIA to the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which looks after American interests in Iran. Washington and Tehran have had no diplomatic relations since the 1979 revolution in Iran.
The succession of videos that appeared on the internet have deepened the mystery surrounding the scientist’s disappearance.
In the first video, a grainy message released on June 7 by Iranian state television, Amiri said: “I was abducted on the 13th of Khordad 1388 (June 3, 2009) in a joint operation by terror and kidnap teams from the US intelligence service CIA and Saudi Arabia’s Istikhbarat [intelligence agency]. I was kidnapped from the holy city of Medina.”
In the second video to appear, a much better quality recording, showing Amiri well-dressed and apparently relaxed, he contradicted his earlier statements, saying that he was in the U.S. of his own free will to further his education. He also rejected rumors about his defection.
In a third video, seemingly hurriedly made, which aired on Iranian state television at the end of last month, Amiri claims to have escaped “U.S. intelligence officers in Virginia.” He had added that he remained in “danger and could possibly be arrested again by U.S. intelligence officers at any moment.”
Amiri’s disappearance preceded the revelation of a second uranium enrichment facility that Iran has been building near the city of Qom, raising speculation that the scientist may have provided the information to the West. According to reports, Amiri also flatly contradicted the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which had concluded that Tehran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Amiri reportedly told U.S. intelligence agents that the program had not been suspended.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)