Nuclear Hero

The case of Iranian defector (or double agent) Shahram Amiri is an odd one indeed.

 Washington swelters through one of its hottest summers in recent memory, the weather forecasters breathless inform us of how many 90 degree days we have had, the economy (and Barack Obama’s administration) continues to underperform - but at least we have reruns of spy stories that seem to be ripped from old scripts written for Maxwell Smart to entertain us. We learn that the Russians sent us at least ten agents whose only illegal act seems to have been that they entered the country using false documents and identities. The only thing that seems to distinguish the Russians from the millions of illegal immigrants that cross our borders every year is that rather than sending money home to their poor families as do the majority of illegal immigrants, the Russians received a steady stream of cash from the Russian government and they used this money to invest in U.S. real estate and to raise children in suburbia. We are left to wonder why the FBI should be concentrating on the Russian illegals who are bringing foreign money to our shores and seem to have been doing a good job of raising all-American kids. If the Russians had only settled in Arizona, they probably would have been left alone as they clearly do not fit the profile of illegal immigrants. As for their activities, the Russian illegals seem to have been assigned the task of finding out what American think tanks were thinking! Washington and New York are filled with think tanks that spend a lot of effort—with only limited success—to get our own government to pay attention to their ideas, so they must be flattered, and somewhat mystified, that a foreign power would invest money and spies to find out what new ideas they have.

By far the weirdest spy story of the summer, however, is that of the Iranian defector and re-defector, Shahram Amiri. If we are to believe the press reports—and as with most mid-summer tales we should remember that their purpose may not be what they seem—Amiri was, according to the CIA, a long-term Agency asset near the heart of the Iranian nuclear program. He allegedly provided valuable intelligence on Iran’s march toward a bomb before being whisked out of Saudi Arabia by the CIA when Iran’s security forces were about to pounce on him. Or he was, according to the Iranian version, either kidnapped by the CIA while on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca or a double agent for Iran sent here to find out what the CIA knew about Iran’s nuclear program.

If he was such a valuable CIA asset, we are left to wonder why the CIA has had such a hard time ferreting out the real intentions of the Iranians with regard their nuclear activities and how far along they are toward whatever goal they may have. And if Amiri was really an Iranian double agent, why give him the task of finding out what the CIA knows about Iranian activities. A simple Google search will turn up the sad truth that the CIA seems to know little and has only managed to produce one National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program, and that in 2007. This estimate was generally dismissed, even by the then director of national intelligence, and most U.S. allies. A new estimate has been promised for more than a year but seems to be constantly several months away.

Unlike the Russian spies who came with their own line of credit from Moscow, our Iranian spy had to be given $5 million dollars by the CIA to fund a new life in Arizona—the CIA apparently agrees that Arizona is a good place for illegals that have money to start a new life. This is all the more galling because Amiri decided for reasons still cloaked in mystery and confusion to leave his $5 million behind and return to Tehran.

The real fun began with his rejection of Thomas Wolfe’s advice that “You Can’t Go Home Again.” The CIA dropped its usual stoical attitude of silence and knowing smirks and began anonymously sending information to its rolodex of journalists on how valuable Amiri had been to the Agency’s efforts at understanding Iranian nuclear activities, including his contribution to the much-maligned 2007 National Intelligence Estimate and identifying new clandestine sites. As for Amiri’s return to Tehran, the standard CIA explanation pointed to Iranian threats against his family and young children—the same family he was presumably willing to leave behind and trade for $5 million. If the Iranians needed any evidence to convict Amiri of high treason, the CIA backgrounding seemed to be determined to provide it.

For their part, the Iranians mostly stuck to their story that Amiri had been kidnapped by Saudis working with the CIA while he was on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca. It was only after questions began to arise about how an important Iranian nuclear scientist could be allowed to go to Saudi Arabia that the Iranians began to claim that Amiri was actually a hero who had been sent on a mission to penetrate the CIA.