By MATTHEW COLE
The Iranian government has threatened to harm the family of a nuclear scientist who defected to the U.S. and helped provide crucial details about Iran's burgeoning weapons program unless he returns home, according to people in the intelligence community briefed by the CIA.
The high-stakes spy saga is being played out online, where both the Iranian intelligence agency and the CIA have posted dueling videos of the scientist. In one video, he claims the U.S. kidnapped him, in the other he says he is happy to be in the U.S.
Behind the scenes, the situation has become so grave that American officials fear Amiri could re-defect, according to the people briefed on the situation. A full report on the case will be broadcast Monday on ABC's "World News with Diane Sawyer" and "Nightline."
At the center of the intrigue is Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist, who officials say operated within Iran as a key CIA spy for several years before his defection.
Amiri apparently provided crucial information, though his precise role in U.S. intelligence gathering remains unclear. Former and current intelligence officials told ABC News that Amiri confirmed the existence of a secret underground enrichment facility near Qom and also described him as a key source in the conclusions of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which found that Iran had suspended its nuclear weaponization program. Initially, before Amiri defected back to Iran, the same officials told ABC News that Amiri's information had contradicted the 2007 NIE finding, but further reporting indicates that was an incorrect interpretation.
CIA director Leon Panetta told ABC News yesterday on This Week that the CIA no longer believes the conclusions of the 2007 NIE, saying that Tehran continues "to work on designs" for a nuclear weapon.
"I think they continue to develop their know-how," Panetta said. "They continue to develop their nuclear capability."
CIA officials pushed for Amiri to flee the country out of fear that his disclosures might expose him to Tehran as a spy.
Amiri vanished last year during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. The Iranian government claimed then that their scientist, a professor at Tehran's Malek Ashtar University, had been kidnapped by the CIA. In fact, say U.S. officials, the CIA, with the help of the Saudi government, whisked Amiri to the U.S., where he was to permanently resettle.
Competing Amiri Videos
A few months after Amiri arrived, the Obama Administration announced that U.S. intelligence had discovered a second, hidden nuclear enrichment facility in the Iranian city of Qom.
Both the CIA and the White House have refused to comment on Amiri.
Complicating the defection is the fact that he left behind a wife and child. Since arriving in the U.S., and being secluded in Arizona, U.S. officials say Amiri has struggled with his decision to flee Iran.
Then came the alleged threats by Iranian intelligence, which set off the bizarre battle of dueling videos that were released earlier this month. The first, which was broadcast on Iranian state television, shows Amiri speaking to a computer camera and announcing that the U.S. had drugged and kidnapped him and forced him to Tucson, Arizona.
He appeared to be looking down at a script as he spoke.
According to the two current U.S. officials, Amiri called home earlier this year because he missed his family. On a second call, Iranian intelligence answered and threatened to harm his son, unless he taped an internet video saying he'd been kidnapped. Amiri, fearing for his family, agreed, according to a person briefed on the case.
"He missed his son," said the person. "And he couldn't help calling home to speak to him."
Within days, the CIA learned that Amiri had given the Iranians a video and moved quickly to produce a version of its own. The second video shows Amiri well-dressed and manicured with a globe - turned to North America - and chess set behind him as he appears to read from a teleprompter. He says, in Farsi, that he is happily living in the U.S. and going to school. He also denied having worked in the Iranian nuclear program and made a plea to his wife and son. "I want them to know that I never abandoned then, and that I will always love them."
According to one U.S. official, the CIA intended to produce the video and launch it on the internet before the Iranians had a chance to air their version.
Instead, the video languished at CIA headquarters for weeks, according to a senior intelligence official. Then, earlier this month, Iranian state television aired the Amiri video. Within a day, the CIA posted their Amiri video on YouTube, with a user identification of "shahramamiri2010."
Amiri Faces Tough Decisions
The Iranian government has since formally requested the U.S. government to return Amiri, accusing the Americans of holding him against his will. A spokesperson for the State department has acknowledged that the U.S. government has received the request, but has had no further comment.
"The United States doesn't force people to defect—that's a decision they make themselves," said a U.S. official. "Mr. Amiri wasn't kidnapped, and he certainly wasn't tortured. That's absurd. The guy has internet access and the ability to make and transmit videos. Let's get real. If you look at defectors as a group, without commenting on any particular individual, some adjust better than others, and some deal better than others with tugs and pressures from back home. But, ultimately, they make their own choices."
One Iranian defector warned that Amiri has some tough decisions ahead. Reza Kahlili, who still uses a pseudonym to protect his relatives whom he left behind in Iran, told ABC News that Amiri is likely making life or death decisions.
Defecting, Khalili said, "becomes very emotional, and at times you question your sanity and the decisions that you've made."
"If he went back…he would be tortured." Khalili said. "And then he would certainly be executed."