Max Fisher at The Atlantic with the round-up:
A prominent Iranian nuclear scientist has defected to the U.S., aiding American hopes of curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, according to ABC News. The scientist, Shahram Amiri, disappeared last year while in Saudi Arabia. In response, Iranian officials accused the U.S. of kidnapping Amiri, but U.S. officials now say he had agreed to American offers to defect. What will his defection mean for the tense U.S.-Iran relationship and for the Iranian nuclear program?
Spencer Ackerman at The Washington Independent:
Pretty serious news if true. Expect a new National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear program to rely significantly on Amiri.
A very nice intel coup for the CIA as they have coaxed an Iranian scientist to defect. It happened last year while the scientist, Shahram Amiri, was on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
What does he know about the Iranian nuke program? He worked at a University that was closely associated with the program but probably was not in the loop about specifics of the bomb. The Iranian program is apparently very compartmentalized and especially for scientists only peripherally involved, it would appear that Amiri couldn’t deliver a smoking gun of proof for an Iranian nuke.
Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy:
Three quick thoughts: First, even if he was a very talented physicist, a single defection like this isn’t going to stop Iran’s nuclear research program in its tracks, or even slow it down very much.
Second, assuming he was intimately involved in Iran’s nuclear program, this ought to increase our confidence in its current state of development. There’s been lots of disagreement about when Iran might actually be able to assemble a nuclear weapon — if in fact they intend to do so — and if this guy’s information is any good, then some of that uncertainty ought to be reduced. Is it time for a new National Intelligence Estimate?
Third, I wonder what Americans would think if other intelligence services engaged in energetic efforts to get leading scientists in our nuclear weapons labs to defect? Based on our reaction to prior cases of nuclear espionage (going back to the Rosenbergs), my guess is that we’d regard it as an act of considerable hostility. I’m not saying we were wrong to recruit this guy, but doesn’t it undercut that “open hand” that we’ve supposedly been extending to Iran? I’ll bet that’s how Tehran sees it.
Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy:
ABC News today published an “exclusive” scoop saying that an Iranian nuclear scientist, Shahram Amiri, has defected to the United States with the assistance of the CIA.
Except, er, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported the defection back in December, though the paper didn’t say that Amiri had come to America and placed him in Europe at the time. The Telegraph‘s story was, however, more clearly sourced to “French intelligence sources” and contained a much richer account of how Amiri supposedly left Iran. The Telegraph also credited the subscription-only website Intelligence Online with breaking the news.
Also back in December, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki directly accused Saudi Arabia and the United States of colluding to “abduct” Amiri (amplifying some more indirect comments he had made back in October). The Telegraph story broke three days later.
The two accounts differ in important respects. According to ABC, “The CIA reportedly approached the scientist in Iran through an intermediary who made an offer of resettlement on behalf of the United States.” But ABC doesn’t say who reported that, and its story is sourced only to “people briefed on the operation by intelligence officials.” (FYI: It so happens that a French delegation is in town for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit.)
But Intelligence Online, the Telegraph says, reported that “The agency made contact with the scientist last year when Amiri visited Frankfurt in connection with his research work” and that “A German businessman acted as go-between. A final contact was made in Vienna when Amiri travelled to Austria to assist the Iranian representative at the IAEA. Shortly afterwards, the scientist went on pilgrimage to Mecca and hasn’t been seen since.”
A couple of things. One: This is just the latest reminder that the CIA’s doing some bang-up work these days (no pun intended). Hats off to Panetta and crew. Two: This isn’t news. Amiri was suspected of having either defected to the west or been kidnapped by western spies right after he went missing, for obvious reasons. The Sunday Telegraph reported four months ago that it was indeed a defection and that he’d given up the goods on Iran’s nuclear program — specifically, the inner workings of the formerly secret site at Qom that was revealed last summer. The CIA already knew that the site existed but evidently didn’t know what was going on inside. Enter Amiri, who helped fill in the blanks.
So why is old news being re-reported by ABC as some kind of bombshell scoop? Probably because of the story this past weekend about suspicions mounting among western intel that Iran’s planning to build at least two more nuclear sites. The White House naturally wants Iran to be paranoid that we know more than we’re letting on, so here’s a timely reminder that their top guys are indeed touchable. And of course, this helps bring a bit of extra public pressure on Russia and China to approve new sanctions. It’s one thing for a western government to claim that Iran’s behaving badly, quite another to produce an Iranian nuclear scientist to confirm that, yes indeed, they’re behaving badly
Elise Cooper at FrumForum:
ABC News reported yesterday that an Iranian nuclear scientist, Shahram Amiri, defected to the U.S. and is giving the CIA information about Iran’s nuclear program. When FrumForum asked its sources about the story, a brick wall went up. One former CIA official told FrumForum that many fellow journalists were experiencing the same stonewalling because “tight lips don’t sink ships.”
Those former CIA officials interviewed felt that it was important to keep the Iranians guessing about information gained. One commented that they hoped “the Iranians were worried because they are probably trying to figure out what happened.” As another former high ranking CIA official noted, “I figure some of the stuff coming out is speculative. Some bogus information might be intentionally floated out there just to confuse people.”
A former operative sadly noted that “this was irresponsible reporting on many fronts. Besides our national security there is a human side to this story. Now the guy’s family, who he left in Iran, is in danger. This was a real disservice.”
Reza Aslan at The Daily Beast:
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.
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.