It sounds like the plot to a pulp spy novel. An Iranian nuclear scientist disappears while on a trip abroad. For months, no one hears from him, until he suddenly resurfaces in the United States, a defector with valuable information about Iran’s nuclear program.
Last June, just before the Iranian regime was to be occupied with the massive demonstrations that erupted in the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, a 30-year-old junior staff member of Iran’s Atomic Agency named Shahram Amiri traveled to Saudi Arabia to take part in the annual Hajj pilgrimage. According to reports, Amiri was detained at the airport in Jeddah and rigorously questioned by Saudi security. After a few hours, he was released. A couple of days later, he made a phone call to his family from the city of Medina, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the first stops for pilgrims during the Hajj festivities. That was the last anyone heard from Shahram Amiri.
Amiri’s defection is part of a covert program put in place by the CIA, codenamed “Brain Drain.”
Almost immediately after his disappearance, the Iranian government accused the United States of kidnapping Amiri. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told a reporter for Press TV that his country had evidence the U.S. had conspired with Saudi Arabia to abduct the young scientist, who apparently had close ties to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards through his position as a researcher at Malek Ashtar University. Mottaki made a formal complaint to the United Nations. “We hold Saudi Arabia responsible and consider the U.S. to be involved in his arrest,” he told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
At the time, the U.S. scoffed at the accusation and denied any knowledge of Amiri or his whereabouts. However, on Tuesday ABC News reported that Amiri had indeed been picked up in Saudi Arabia by U.S. intelligence with an offer of resettlement in the U.S. in exchange for divulging information about Iran’s nuclear program. Amiri’s defection is part of a covert program put in place by the CIA in 2005 codenamed “Brain Drain,” the purpose of which is to disrupt Iran’s nuclear ambitions by persuading key Iranian officials and scientists to defect to the United States.
It turns out that Shahram Amiri is not the first well-placed Iranian official to disappear in recent years. Two years ago, a former defense minister named Ali-Reza Asgari, who was also a general in the Revolutionary Guards, vanished while on a trip to Turkey. He has yet to reappear, but reports suggest that he may be living in the United States helping American intelligence officials uncover Iran’s nuclear secrets.
The Brain Drain program is just one aspect of a much larger U.S. and Israeli intelligence operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program by, for example, using front companies to sell Iran faulty components for its centrifuges, or making subtle changes to technical documents that essentially render them useless. These clandestine efforts are made easier by the fact that international sanctions have forced Iran to purchase material for its nuclear program on the black market. It seems that the sabotage program is bearing fruit. In 2006, 50 centrifuges were destroyed in Iran’s Natanz plant when what appeared to be faulty power supplies purchased on the nuclear black market exploded.
Not surprisingly, Israeli intelligence has taken the sabotage program to extremes. According to reports in The Daily Telegraph, Israel launched a program of targeted assassinations that has resulted in the death of a number of high-profile Iranian nuclear scientists, including Ardeshire Hassanpour, who was poisoned, allegedly by Mossad agents, in 2007.
If Amiri is providing intelligence to the CIA, there is some question about how useful his information can be. He is young and not a major player in Iran’s nuclear program. It is difficult to know just how sensitive a position he had at Iran’s Atomic Agency. The Iranians claim he had no connection to the agency whatsoever. Amiri’s disappearance occurred just three months before the U.S. announced it had discovered a secret nuclear enrichment facility in the city of Qom. Yet it appears that U.S. intelligence had known about the Qom facility for at least a couple of years—right around the time of Asgari’s disappearance.
Whether these covert programs intended to sabotage Iran’s enrichment program are enough to derail its nuclear ambitions remains to be seen. At best, such operations may slow down Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Yet the sabotage program has created such high levels of paranoia among the Iranian regime that they now question every nuclear purchase and blame every setback on foreign interference, convinced that their components and their technology have been tampered with. As one intelligence official noted, that, in and of itself, is worth the clandestine efforts.
Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.