Amiri and the Role of Intelligence in Geopolitical Struggles
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
The saga of the missing Iranian nuclear scientist who disappeared from Saudi Arabia last year while on pilgrimage to Mecca reached a critical stage Tuesday. Iranian state media reported early that morning that Shahram Amiri, a researcher at Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, had taken refuge in the Islamic republic's Interests Section, which is housed in the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, as part of his efforts to return home. Iran says that U.S. authorities released Amiri, after being abducted by American intelligence agents, under pressure from Tehran's public relations maneuvers. By mid-morning on the United States' East Coast, Washington had issued its official response: Amiri came to the United States on his own accord and now wanted to leave. It's significant that this is the first time the U.S. government acknowledged that the Iranian scientist was in the United States. These dramatic developments come in the wake of multiple YouTube videos featuring a man or men claiming to be Amiri and who made contradictory statements, including that he was happily studying in the United States. The exact circumstances that brought Amiri to the United States are critical in comprehending the nature of his involvement with American officials. But those details are unlikely to be made public by either side. And without details, this story offers more questions than answers. Without details, this story offers more questions than answers. If U.S. intelligence agents captured Amiri, how did he escape? How did he avoid getting recaptured for months, let alone publish videos of himself? Why did it take this long to reach his country's Interests Section? Assuming he came to the United States voluntarily and now wanted to return to Iran, why take cover in the Interests Section instead of just boarding a flight? Current information merely allows one to theorize. Amiri's reappearance, first on the Web and now in person, suggests that he possibly came to the United States to defect. That could explain his appearance on the Web and why he stayed below the radar for months. His desire to return to Iran indicates that things did not work out as expected. The Americans realized that he offered little in the way of intelligence value, which meant Amiri wasn't able to achieve his goals. Now he is trying to make his way back home where he may have better luck. Returning home doesn't come without serious risks, especially if the Iranians feel that Amiri has betrayed them. He and his loved ones could be executed on charges of treason. He has to be aware of this potential outcome, thus it doesn't make sense for him to want to go back. If he does want to return home, it makes sense for him — and the United States, if it wants to help — to create a story of capture that the Iranians might believe. Another alternative emerges, one much more sinister and complicated — though not beyond the pale. Amiri could be a double agent planted by the Iranians to gain information about U.S. intelligence operations. Having completed his mission and maintained his cover, he is now making his way home. This seems an incredible explanation and assumes he managed to outsmart his American intelligence handlers. But it is not unthinkable, given what happened with Iraqi Shiite leader Ahmed Chalabi, who for years worked with multiple U.S. government agencies while working for Iranian intelligence. Chalabi even fed the U.S. intelligence system false information to ensure that Washington did not back down from its attempts to remove Iraq's Baathist regime from power. Ultimately, Amiri's objectives in coming to the United States may never be known, no matter who he was working for. And like previous examples of double agents and defectors, the case will always be debated. This story — like the recent case of the Russian spies caught in the United States — does however underscore the role of intelligence, especially human intelligence operations, in shaping geopolitical struggles. One cannot dismiss the Amiri case as mere coincidence as the struggle between Washington and Tehran over Iraq and the nuclear issue approach a critical impasse.