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Friday, July 16, 2010

A double agent?

A lot of you have speculated in the comments that Iranian nuclear scientist Shaham Amiri was a double agent. Here's a rather detailed analysis that explores that issue.
As far as the kidnapping charge goes, there is an unspoken rule among intelligence services that they do not kidnap each others' agents. (This rule also applies to all high-value individuals who may have access to sensitive information.) The practice arises out of sheer necessity: by engaging in kidnapping or other violent acts against your adversaries, you immediately invite retaliation by the other side. Things could soon escalate beyond anyone's control. A country that engages in such activities, as Iran did in the 1980s, is considered a pariah and ostracized, with manifold diplomatic and economic consequences.

Although the rule was ignored by the Bush administration in cases involving the fight against Al Qaeda and similar organizations, it has been consistently upheld in state-to-state relations. Still, in the unlikely event that the U.S. government actually kidnapped Amiri, it is inconceivable that they would simply let him go of his own accord. Thus the absurd claim by some hardline papers in Iran that he has escaped from his captors.

With the contingency of kidnapping effectively ruled out, we are left with two possibilities. The first is that Amiri defected, but then had a change of heart due either to pressures applied to his family in Iran or to feelings of homesickness and unhappiness with restricted circumstances, as many newspaper articles have suggested. There is a famous precedent for this. In 1985, Soviet spy Vitaly Yurchenko "redefected" to the Soviet Union after a short stay in the United States, allegedly for such reasons. (On his return, Yurchenko, like Amiri, claimed he had been drugged and abducted by the CIA.)

The second possibility is that his defection was fake and that Amiri was in fact tasked with the mission of acting like a genuine defector in order to embarrass Iran's adversaries, gain knowledge of their "methods and techniques," and score a noteworthy political and diplomatic victory. Already, hardline papers are touting it as a major "intelligence coup" on their front pages. Though it is likely that Amiri divulged some state secrets to his interrogators -- as it is assumed he did concerning the Fordo nuclear plant -- if he was indeed a double agent, his superiors must have weighed the cost and benefits of his "defection" and concluded that there was more to be gained by his going over to the other side than not. It is also possible that they suspected the West knew about Fordo already.

Regarding the first possibility, it is a very rare for defectors to return to their home countries; this is especially true of a brutal regime like the Islamic Republic, where a repatriated defector would likely face extensive, interrogation, torture, or even execution. (Saddam Husssein's son-in-law Hussein Kamel al-Majid, for instance, was executed after he returned to Iraq from Jordan.) The least that a lapsed defector could expect would be a lifetime of opprobrium and festering suspicions. Amiri, who has worked within the Iranian system for many years, would surely be aware of these perils. It is also relevant that even the most celebrated case of "redefection", Yurchenko's, is now believed to have been an elaborate penetration operation.

Whereas the "lapsed defector syndrome" is problematic for a variety of reasons, the likelihood of a fake defection seems quite plausible, particularly given the well-coordinated effort to portray the case as an abduction from the very beginning.

First, Iran has already gained a great deal from the incident. The Islamic Republic can now claim that Western intelligence reports on its most critical national security issue, the nuclear program, are largely fabricated. The return of Amiri and his charges of abduction by the CIA are major morale boosters for supporters of the regime and the cadres -- particularly the Intelligence Ministry agents -- whose esprit de corps has been weakened by a spate of unfavorable news in recent months.

Second, from now on, every high-value defector from Iran will be seen as a potential Shahram Amiri -- suspected of being a double agent, any such person is far more likely to be subjected to harsh interrogation and debriefing sessions.

Third, Amiri's experiences and observations while being held by the Saudi and U.S. intelligence services must provide their Iranian counterparts with invaluable knowledge of what is called their "methods and techniques" in the spy trade.
Hmmm. There's much more here.


At 4:03 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

This the issue I raised. As I observed, its rare for a genuine defector to feel homesick. No one takes such a step in a dictatorship lightly. Genuine defectors would never return home, knowing what is likely to happen to them. So it raises the question - who really was Shaham Amiri? We don't really have a good answer to that question.


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