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.