By Matthew Cole
The Iranian nuclear scientist in the middle of the high stakes battle between Washington and Tehran has released two new videos, claiming to have "escaped" U.S. intelligence and says he's on his way back to Iran.
The scientist, Shahram Amiri, who, according to U.S. intelligence officials resettled in the U.S. last year after working for several years as a CIA spy, has claimed that he escaped "U.S. intelligence officers in Virginia." He says he is now in a "safe place" but that he is in "danger and could possibly be arrested again by U.S. intelligence officers at any moment."
"In case anything happens to me or if I do not make it back home safely, the responsibility will solely rest on the officials of the United States," Amiri says in a video posted to YouTube, which says was recorded June 14.
A U.S. official tried today to quickly rebuke Amiri's claims.
"The guy's ability to make and release messages is clear proof that he hasn't been held in the United States against his will, says that theory's absurd. That's not the way it works—we don't have to compel people to defect. Maybe he's just trying to build a story for the folks back home. The fact that he can say what he wants doesn't make his statements true. He's shown to the world that he has the power to make choices—even bad ones."
The latest video aired today on Iranian state television and continues the propaganda efforts of Tehran to show Amiri was kidnapped and brought to the U.S. against his will.
In fact, U.S. officials say, Amiri was a key spy inside the Iranian nuclear program for several years before his defection.
Amiri's 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 acknowledged this week to ABC News that the CIA no longer believed 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."
Iran and Nuclear Weapons
Iran's nuclear ambitions have been the subject of international debate. The Obama administration recently called for increased U.N. sanctions. Amiri, once a star scientist for the Iranian nuclear program, according to U.S. officials, has become the center of efforts of both countries to characterize Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Tehran has said that its nuclear program is for energy purposes only and denies ambitions for a nuclear weapon.
Both the Iranian intelligence agency and the CIA have posted dueling videos of the scientist in past several weeks. In one video, Amiri claims the U.S. kidnapped, drugged and tortured 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.
CIA officials pushed for Amiri to flee the country out of fear that his disclosures might have exposed him to Tehran as a spy.
Amiri vanished last June 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.
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.
Competing Videos of Amiri
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."
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.