The Case Of The Mysterious Iranian “Spy”
For the past five years, much of the world has stayed on the sidelines over the U.S.-Iran squabble over Tehran’s nuclear program. The only countries that have taken a side in the dispute- or at least responded in some way- have been the really powerful members of the U.N. Security Council (the Council has already passed four rounds of economic sanctions on Iran for its refusal to provide specific information on its nuclear progress). The facts, assertions, claims, and counterclaims have basically remained consistent; the United States and the west believe that the Iranian Government is secretly building a nuclear weapons capability, while Iran insists that its only operating a peaceful program for peaceful purposes.
This same saga has been ongoing since 2003, when an Iranian dissident first broke the news about the existence of the clandestine Iranian program. A few nuclear facilities later, nothing really new has surfaced. After all this time, Washington still doesn’t know whether Iran’s Government has made the decision to cross the nuclear threshold, or whether the ayatollahs have even started researching weapons designs. In fact, U.S. intelligence agencies are still conflicted as to how long it would take Iran to assemble a single nuclear bomb in the first place; CIA Director Leon Panetta claims 2 to 3 years, while others in the government already believe that the Iranians have enough uranium for a bomb.
So when an Iranian nuclear scientist named Shahram Amiri somehow found his way to the United States, it’s safe to say that people in Washington were pretty ecstatic. When Amiri shared intimate information about Tehran’s nuke program- some of which may have been used to modify America’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran- Washingtonians were happier still.
But as always, there’s a problem. After a year as a resident in the United States, Amiri has decided to return home. And what’s more problematic is the reason for his departure: his lack of adjustment to U.S. culture.
As with any immigrant who arrives in the U.S., it’s difficult for a young Iranian to start a new life and meet the lofty expectations of the “American dream.” Generally, immigrants don’t see the United States in the same vein as a typical suburbanite. The big houses, green lawns, and white picket fences that have come to categorize the American lifestyle disappears quickly in the mind of foreigners trying to start a new life in America. This was particularly the case with Amiri, who not only traveled thousands of miles by himself to a strange new land, but who also had a hard time figuring out how to start living and acting as an “American.”
Amiri’s predicament doesn’t end there. His wife and young child remained a half-a-world-away in Iran, which undoubtedly added to his homesickness. Plus, lets face it; Iranian authorities aren’t known for treating relatives of defectors very well.
As of today, Amiri is back in Tehran, where he was welcomed with hugs and kisses from his family and handshakes from senior Iranian officials. It’s a happy ending to a mysterious story. But the story could have been much happier if this same family reunited on American soil. The U.S. could have done a lot more by ensuring the safety of Amiri’s wife and child. That way, perhaps the scientist with important clues into Tehran’s nuclear program would have stayed around for further questioning.
It’s a possibility that Amiri disclosed everything he knew about the Iranian program before he decided to re-defect, in which case his travel back to Tehran is a trivial afterthought. But thanks to Washington’s lack of family values, we may never know the full answer.
**By the way, Amiri’s full story is actually much more mysterious than I originally described. For a full look at his journey, check out Josh Rogin’s column at foreignpolicy.com.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Josh Rogin at FP.com**