The Times: An Iranian nuclear scientist who disappeared while on pilgrimage to Mecca last year has defected to the United States and is living and working there for the CIA, it was reported yesterday. The Times
Catherine Philp, Diplomatic Correspondent
An Iranian nuclear scientist who disappeared while on pilgrimage to Mecca last year has defected to the United States and is living and working there for the CIA, it was reported yesterday.
Revelations about Shahram Amiri’s defection came as the US and five other world powers, including China, were said to have reached agreement on drawing up new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme in the next few days.
The report on ABC News described the defection as “an intelligence coup,” and claimed that information gleaned from debriefing Dr Amiri had added detail and confirmation to existing CIA intelligence assessments about the Iranian nuclear programme. It also increased the growing international pressure on Tehran.
Dr Amiri, a nuclear scientist at Tehran’s Malek Ashtar University, went missing in June last year three days after arriving in Saudi Arabia for the annual haj. Details of his disappearance emerged months later when Iran accused the US of abducting him and lodged a formal protest against Washington with the United Nations.
Malek Ashtar University has been identified by the UN as a nuclear research facility overseen by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the guardians of its clandestine nuclear weapons programme.
Documents from within the programme obtained by The Times last year detailed the outsourcing of nuclear work to trusted university departments.
ABC reported that Dr Amiri’s defection was part of a CIA operation to woo Iranian nuclear scientists with family contacts in the US. The CIA was said to have approached him through an intermediary in Iran who made the offer of resettlement in the US. A CIA spokesman refused to comment on the report.
The most senior Iranian believed to have defected is Ali Reza Asghari, a former Revolutionary Guard brigadier general and Deputy Defence Minister, who vanished on a trip to Turkey in 2007. His name also appeared with Dr Amiri’s on a list of Iranians allegedly kidnapped by the US submitted by Tehran to the UN.
Mr Asghari was said to be the most senior military officer overseeing Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. Western intelligence sources say that the programme is compartmentalised to prevent collapse in case of defections or deaths but defectors may still be able to provide key information on nuclear projects.
The timing of Dr Amiri’s disappearance raised speculation that he provided the final jigsaw pieces required to confirm the clandestine construction of a second uranium enrichment plant, Fordow, near the holy city of Qom. Iran told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about Fordow in September, days before Washington publicly revealed it.
Western intelligence sources said that Tehran only acted because it realised the secrecy surrounding Fordow had been compromised. The revelation prompted a brief era of co-operation between Tehran and the E3 plus 3, the group comprising the US, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, which negotiates with Iran on the international community’s behalf. However, Tehran rapidly failed to live up to its promises and a string of provocative declarations followed, including the first IAEA report citing evidence of nuclear weapons work at present.
Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, has pointed to the recent string of disclosures over Iran’s nuclear programme as evidence of the need for sanctions. She said yesterday that six world powers, including Russia and China, were united in talks on a new round of sanctions and would be engaging in discussions with other UN Security Council members in the coming weeks.