The Iranian government has executed a nuclear scientist who was believed to have cooperated with U.S. intelligence but who returned to Iran after claiming he had been abducted and tortured by the CIA.
The tale of Shahram Amiri was one of the stranger sagas to emerge from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state, testing her diplomatic skills in highly sensitive circumstances. His death comes just over a year after Iran and the U.S. struck a deal aimed at reining in Iran's nuclear program, an agreement Clinton was instrumental in launching.
State-controlled Iranian media on Sunday confirmed Amiri's execution, quoting an Iranian judiciary spokesman as saying that Amiri "provided the enemy with vital information of the country." His family told the BBC his body had rope marks, indicating he had been hanged, apparently in the past week.
Amiri went missing in Saudi Arabia in May or June 2009 while on religious pilgrimage to Mecca. In the following months, Iranian officials accused the U.S. of abducting him. The State Department claimed for months that it "had no information" on Amiri.
The Iranian resurfaced publicly on June 7, 2010 in a pair of Internet videos. In one, he claimed he'd been kidnapped by the CIA during his pilgrimage and was being held in Tucson, Arizona, where he has been subject to torture and psychological pressure. In the other, he claimed he was in the U.S. to further his education and was free and safe.
Amiri appeared in a third video posted June 29, 2010, where he said he'd escaped U.S. custody and had reached Virginia. Two weeks later, Amiri walked into the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., which houses an Iranian interests section, and said he wanted to return to Iran.
Clinton confirmed at that point that Amiri had been present in the U.S. during a news conference, saying he arrived “of his own free will and he is free to go. These are decisions that are his alone to make.”
When he did land in his native country on July 15, 2010, he was given a hero’s welcome, and Iranian officials cast him as a double agent, claiming he had infiltrated U.S. intelligence and that Iran had the upper hand in an intelligence war. But soon after returning home Amiri was taken into custody, presumably imprisoned because of his dalliance with the U.S.
The CIA and the State Department declined to comment for this story, and the White House said it had no immediate comment. But the U.S. was clearly embarrassed over the drama as it played out six years ago, not to mention unhappy about the public window it offered into the high-stakes spy battles between Washington and Tehran over the latter's nuclear program.
American officials at the time quickly went about trying to debunk Amiri's allegations, scoffing at claims that they had kidnapped and held Amiri against his will. (It was never quite clear how Amiri managed to record the videos, still available on YouTube, if he was being held a prisoner of the U.S.)
The U.S. officials told American news organizations that Amiri had provided intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program for years from inside Iran, and that although he was not a major player in the country's nuclear apparatus his information still proved useful. They said he had been paid some $5 million for the information he provided.
As Amiri made his way across the U.S. to the Pakistani Embassy, Clinton's advisers fretted over how to react.
In an email published among the trove of messages originally on her private server, top Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan (who now has a top role in Clinton's presidential campaign) expressed concern about how Amiri’s story would play in the media.
“The gentleman you have talked to [top State Department official] Bill Burns about has apparently gone to his country's interests section because he is unhappy with how much time it has taken to facilitate his departure,” Sullivan wrote. “This could lead to problematic news stories in the next 24 hours. Will keep you posted."
Another email, written by energy envoy Richard Morningstar and sent days earlier, portrayed Amiri as having psychological problems.
"Per the subject we discussed, we have a diplomatic, 'psychological' issue, not a legal issue," Morningstar wrote. "Our friend has to be given a way out. We should recognize his concerns and frame it in terms of a misunderstanding with no malevolent intent and that we will make sure there is no recurrence. Our person won't be able to do anything anyway. If he has to leave, so be it."
At the time, there were some reports that Amiri, who was born in 1977, was worried about what would happen to his family, especially his young son, whom he had left behind in Iran and who clearly were under the pressure of watchful Iranian authorities.
When he arrived back in Iran, he held his son, then age 7, in his arms as he faced a bank of microphones. He alleged that U.S. and Saudi officials were complicit in his kidnapping, that Israeli agents were involved in interrogating him, and that he'd been offered $50 million to be resettled in Europe.Amiri's case was one of several dramatic U.S.-Iran developments in 2010. That same year, President Barack Obama signed into law a new set of sanctions on the Islamic Republic, penalties that are believed to have helped push Iran toward the bargaining table a few years later.
The nuclear deal, reached July 14, 2015, has led Iran to dismantle large parts of its nuclear program, which Tehran has always insisted was meant for peaceful purposes. The U.S. and other nations involved in the agreement have in turn cut back on their sanctions.
Suspicions remain strong on both sides, however. Iranian leaders have complained they are not getting sanctions relief fast enough, leading some in the West to worry that Tehran will back out of the deal.Earlier this month, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei used Twitter to accuse the U.S. of violating the deal, saying it proved Iran "cannot negotiate in any issue with U.S. as a reliable party." He added: "Americans want to take everything and give nothing. Talks with US on regional issues is a lethal poison and they cannot be trusted in any issue."
In the days afterward, another flashpoint emerged when The Wall Street Journal reported details of how the U.S. shipped $400 million in cash to Iran in mid-January, around the same time Iran released five Americans in its custody.
U.S. officials insist the payment was the first installment of a completely separate $1.7 billion settlement the Obama administration reached with Iran over a decades-old financial dispute, and they point out that that agreement was publicly announced at the time of the prisoner release.
But the Journal's description of the cash transfer — in pallets of foreign currency — revived Republican allegations that the so-called separate financial settlement was really a ransom payment for Americans unjustly held by a rogue regime. GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is among those who has attacked Clinton over the $400 million transfer.