Archive for July 15th, 2010

‘Abducted’ Nuclear Scientist Returns to Iran

By Nasser Karimi and Brian Murphy for The Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran – Flashing a victory sign, an Iranian nuclear scientist who claims he was abducted and abused by U.S. agents a year ago returned Thursday to his homeland and into the heart of the latest crossfire between Washington and Tehran.

The conflicting accounts about Shahram Amiri — captive or defector who got cold feet — are unlikely to alter the Western-led pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.

But Iran’s leaders are expected to use Amiri to ring up as many propaganda points as possible against Washington — showing that relations remain in a deep freeze and hopes of breakthrough talks appear as distant as ever.

It also gives the ruling clerics a welcome distraction at a time when domestic protests are growing over Iran’s stumbling economy and worries about the fallout from international sanctions.

Amiri’s return “shows the strength of the Islamic republic,” boasted lawmaker Amir Taherkhani. Another prominent parliament member, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, called the alleged kidnapping a “terrorist act.”

But the Washington Post reported that the CIA paid Amiri $5 million to provide intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program. The Post in its online edition late Wednesday said the money came from a secret program aimed at inducing scientists and others with information on Iran’s nuclear program to defect.

U.S. officials also told the Post that Amiri should be unable to get to that money now that he’s returned to Iran, which is under financial sanctions.

It remains unclear how Iranian authorities will ultimately deal with Amiri — and the U.S. claims he cooperated with American authorities — despite his hero-style welcome.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki called Amiri a “dear compatriot” and said Iran was keenly interested in learning more about the reasons for his alleged abduction.

Journalists were allowed to cover Amiri’s first steps back in Iran in a rare relaxation of media restrictions. The last such press gathering permitted at Tehran’s international airport was linked to another tussle with Washington: the May visit by the mothers of three jailed Americans arrested last year on the Iran-Iraq border.

Amiri’s pre-dawn arrival capped a stunning tumble of events over the past month that included leaked videos with mixed messages, Amiri surfacing at a diplomatic compound in Washington and the White House finally acknowledging his presence in the country.

The U.S. says he was a willing defector who changed his mind and decided to board a plane home from Washington. Amiri has told a very different tale, claiming he was snatched while on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia and bundled off to the United States to be harshly interrogated and offered millions of dollars by the CIA to speak against Iran.

Amiri was embraced by his family — including his tearful 7-year-old son — and greeted by a top envoy from Iran’s Foreign Ministry. The 32-year-old Amiri smiled and gave the V-for-victory sign.

Speaking to journalists after a flight via Qatar, Amiri repeated his earlier claims that he was snatched while in the Saudi holy city of Medina and carried off to the United States.

The first months were full of intense pressures, he alleged. “I was under the harshest mental and physical torture,” he said at the Tehran airport, with his young son sitting on his lap.

He also alleged that Israeli agents were present during the interrogations and that CIA officers offered him $50 million to remain in America. He gave no further details to back up the claims or shed any new light on his time in the United States, but promised to reveal more later.

“I have some documents proving that I’ve not been free in the United States and have always been under the control of armed agents of U.S. intelligence services,” Amiri told reporters.

Previously he claimed that CIA agents “pressured me to help with their propaganda against Iran,” he said, including offering him up to $10 million to talk to U.S. media and claim to have documents on a laptop against Iran. He said he refused to take the money.

Amiri refused to say how — if under guard — he could have escaped U.S. agents to release videos in which he alleges that he had been snatched by American and Saudi kidnap teams while on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. He said that to disclose such information now could harm national security, and said he would explain everything later.

On Thursday, Amiri sought to play down his role in Iran’s nuclear program — which Washington and allies fear could be used to create atomic weapons. Iran says it only seeks energy-producing reactors.

“I am a simple researcher who was working in the university,” he said. “I’m not involved in any confidential jobs. I had no classified information.”

His case was often raised by Iranian officials in the past year, but Washington offered no public response. It took a higher profile after Iranian authorities decided to pursue charges against the three Americans arrested along the border with Iraq in July 2009.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hassan Qashqavi, said there would be “no link” between Amiri’s return and the case of the three Americans, whose families say they were hiking in northern Iraq and that if they crossed the border, they did so inadvertently.

U.S. officials also have repeatedly asked Iran for information about Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007.

Amiri was generally a footnote in the international showdown over Iran’s nuclear ambitions until last month. Iranian state TV aired a video he purportedly made from an Internet cafe in Tucson, Arizona, to claim he was taken captive by U.S. and Saudi “terror and kidnap teams.”

The video was shortly followed by another, professionally produced clip in which he said he was happily studying for a doctorate in the United States. In a third, shaky piece of video, Amiri claimed to have escaped from U.S. agents in Virginia and insisted the second video was “a complete lie” that the Americans put out.

U.S. officials never acknowledged he was on American soil until Tuesday, hours after he turned up at the Iranian interests section at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington asking to be sent home. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Amiri had been in the United States “of his own free will and he is free to go.”

On Thursday in Tehran, he asked American authorities to explain their secrecy.

“Why didn’t they allow me to have an open interview with the media in the United States?” he said. “Why didn’t they ever announce my presence?”

U.S. officials would say little about the circumstances of what they assert was a willing defection by Amiri and what went wrong. But there were suggestions that threats to his family in Iran pushed Amiri to first make the claims he was kidnapped. Amiri, however, claimed his family faced no problems. “My family was completely free and they were under financial support of the Iranian government,” he said.

Pakistan Oil & Gas to Spend $1 Billion on Exploration, CEO Says

By Khaliq Ahmed and Farhan Sharif for Bloomberg

Oil & Gas Development Co., Pakistan’s biggest fuels explorer, plans to spend a record $1 billion this year to drill 48 new wells and increase production, to help bridge the nation’s record energy deficit.

“We are following a very aggressive exploration policy,” Chief Executive Shah Mehboob Alam said in an interview at his office in Islamabad yesterday. “We are targeting a number of discoveries.”

Improved domestic energy supplies may help Pakistan’s economy which has been hurt by terrorism and falling foreign investment. Demand for energy is three times supply and daily power outages have forced textile and engineering factories to close and caused riots across the country.

“There is a huge need and also huge potential to increase production by explorers,” said Umer Ayaz, a research analyst at JS Global Capital Ltd. in Karachi. “Pakistan has unusual risks in exploration and also unusually high potential.” A “sizeable” discovery in the northwest will be announced in “a couple of days,” Alam said, without giving details.

Shares of Oil & Gas Development rose 2.8 percent to 149.56 rupees on the Karachi Stock Exchange yesterday, the highest since Oct. 30, 2006. The stock has gained 35 percent this year compared with an 8 percent increase in the benchmark index. Oil & Gas plans to expand exploration in the western province of Baluchistan, where attacks on pipelines and installations have disrupted gas supplies, Alam said. The province is estimated to hold more than half the country’s gas reserves.

The company expects the Zin Block in Baluchistan to generate its first gas flows within two years. The block has estimated gas reserves of 10 trillion cubic feet and drilling is scheduled to start as soon as the government approves security plans within the next two weeks, he said.

“We drilled only five out a planned 15 wells in Baluchistan last year because of security issues,” he said. “Now, we have submitted a plan to the Finance Ministry under which the Frontier Corp. will raise a special force of 500 to 600 people.” Baluch nationalists want political autonomy and a share of the resources in the province, where the country’s largest gas fields, including Sui, are located. The Frontier Corp. is part of Pakistan’s paramilitary force.

The company is also working in fields in western Baluchistan, including the Samandar field, west of Karachi, and Shahana, which is near the border with Iran, Alam said. Oil & Gas will invite bids today for the development of Kunar Pasakhi Deep and Tando Allah Yar fields in the southern province of Sindh, Alam said. Previously awarded tenders had been canceled after being challenged in court for not complying with regulatory procedures. The two fields may produce 280 million cubic feet of gas a day, 360 metric tons of liquefied petroleum gas a day and 4,300 barrels of oil a day, Alam said.

The company drilled 26 wells and made six discoveries in the year ended June 30, including at Nashpa in the northwest, which is producing 15 million cubic feet a day of gas and 4,700 barrels of oil a day, he said. Oil & Gas Development discovers fuel in one out of every 2.3 wells drilled, compared with an industry average of one in every 3.8, he said.

Oil & Gas Development will increase production after installing new compressors to plug leaks at the Qadirpur gas field by September, Alam said. The company plans to buy two new rigs this year. The Qadirpur field in the southern province of Sindh contributes about 40 percent of the company’s total gas output.

Oil & Gas Development produces about 1 billion cubic feet of gas a day, or a quarter of the country’s total output. Its oil production is 60 percent of the nation’s total of 62,000 barrels a day. Pakistan imports 85 percent of its oil needs. The company’s profit in the 12 months ended June 30, will be “higher than last year,” Alam said, without giving details. Oil & Gas reported a net profit of 55.5 billion rupees ($647 million) in the year ended June 30, 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

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