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After years of silence, Iran executes a scientist who spilled nuclear secrets to the US

Shahram Amiri speaking next to his son after his July 2010 return to Iran.
Reuters/Raheb Homavandi
Shahram Amiri speaking next to his son after his July 2010 return to Iran.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A murky saga of global nuclear intrigue came to an end this week when the Iranian government returned the body of Shahram Amiri to his family, with bruises from hanging around his neck.

The Iranian scientist had disappeared on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 2009 before surfacing in the US. There, he said he had been abducted by the Central Intelligence Agency, and returned to Tehran in 2010 to a public welcome. But in 2011 he was arrested by the regime and reportedly tortured during captivity.

“Through his connection with the United States, Amiri gave vital information about the country to the enemy,” an Iranian government spokesperson said yesterday, confirming that Amiri had been executed. The news comes nearly a year after Iran agreed to a US-led treaty designed to end its nuclear weapons program.

Throughout Amiri’s time in the public eye, confusion followed—did he mean to defect in 2009 or seek political asylum, or was he actually abducted? If he fled Iran voluntarily, was it to divulge the country’s nuclear secrets or, as Iran once claimed, to act as a double-agent on behalf of the Ayatollah’s regime?

The full story will likely have to wait 50-year declassification process at US intelligence agencies. But the heart of the story seems to be a spy’s ambivalence while caught between two nations in an ideological struggle over the most dangerous weapons in the world.

According to US intelligence sources cited by the New York Times, Amiri was a covert informant inside Iran’s nuclear program for several years before he slipped out of Iran and sought asylum in the US during a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Granted an undercover identity and money for a new life, he lived secretly in Arizona and in Virginia.

But then, likely motivated by threats against his family still in Iran, including his wife and young son, Amiri went public with YouTube video messages, saying that the US had kidnapped him and used torture to force him to betray his country. In the ensuing scandal, he was allowed to return to Iran.

The revelations embarrassed both countries—that the US could penetrate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and that a US intelligence asset would then reveal the plot. Iran suggested that Amiri was in fact a double-agent gathering secrets in the US. In reply, American intelligence sources—leery of being caught up in another torture scandal—described Amiri’s voluntary classified work history to reporters.

“When you stack what Amiri might have learned here—what he had for dinner or the fake name of someone who might have come to see him—up against verified insights about Iran’s nuclear program, it’s crystal clear that we got the better end of things,” one official told the Times.

Those details, intended to reassure US citizens and lawmakers, likely also snuffed out any chance of Amiri saving his life by convincing the Iranian government he was a victim of American intelligence, and not their servant.

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