By MATTHEW COLE
The Iranian nuclear scientist who returned to Tehran today left behind some $5 million he was promised by the CIA as part of "benefits package" offered by the CIA's National Resettlement Operations Center, US officials tell ABC News.
"Anything he got is now beyond his reach, thanks to the sanctions against Iran," one US official said. "We've got his information and the Iranians have him."
When Amiri defected, the CIA offered him $5 million for information about the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Typically, the CIA places these kinds of funds in escrow so that an informant is only paid bit by bit, at the agency's discretion. Keeping the money in escrow prevents an asset from grabbing the money all at once.
It is unknown how much money Amiri was able to collect prior to his return to Iran, but the bulk of the cash remains in US hands. "He's gone," said the US official, "but the money's still here."
As early as this spring, CIA officials believed that Amiri, who fled Iran last year in a daring operation, might not want to stay in the US and could redefect. Amiri, who turned up at an Iranian government office in Washington, D.C. on Monday and asked to return to Iran, arrived back in Tehran Wednesday.
Despite the seeming suddenness of Amiri's decision to return to Iran after years working as a CIA asset and more than a year of resettlement in the US, the CIA began to sense he may not have wanted to come out of Iran, despite the offer of $5 million and resettlement in the United States.
According to current and former US intelligence officials briefed on the Amiri case, the CIA began pressuring Amiri to flee Iran as early as 2008. It was then, the officials say, that the CIA feared that Amiri was under suspicion of spying for the Americans.
The CIA was afraid of losing their source. Certain that the Iranian government would execute Amiri for treason, the agency suggested to Amiri that he should flee Iran.
Amiri, however, told his CIA handlers that he was safe and that the Iranian government did not have any reason to know he was giving information about the Iranian nuclear program to the U.S. Amiri stalled the CIA by telling his handlers that twice he tried to escape on his own but had failed.
Amiri May Have Been Unprepared to Leave Iran
Eventually, the officials say, CIA pressure wore Amiri down and he agreed to leave Iran. But looking back, the CIA now believes Amiri's story that he had tried to escape on his own may have been false, and the first sign that he was not psychologically ready to leave for the US.
To entice Amiri, the CIA offered him $5 million and offered to get him and his wife and son out of Tehran and resettle them in the U.S, as the CIA commonly does for important defectors. The money, officials say, was not given up front, but was to be distributed incrementally over the course of his life.
Amiri agreed to take the money and offer of resettlement, but told the CIA he would leave his family behind. When asked why he would go alone, Amiri told the CIA he disliked his wife and felt that his son would be better off in Iran believing his father had disappeared, according to the officials briefed on the matter.
The CIA then arraigned for Amiri to take a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, where, with the help Saudi intelligence, Amiri would be whisked out of the Middle East and resettled in the US. The plan was to make Amiri disappear with no clues as to where Amiri had gone, but within weeks the Iranian government accused the U.S. of kidnapping their scientist. Amiri's wife and family reportedly protested outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
Once Amiri arrived in the U.S. he was debriefed by top government experts on Iran's nuclear program and the process of resettlement. According to one former intelligence official, Amiri was moved to Tucson, Arizona by a little known division inside the CIA called the National Resettlement Operations Center, or NROC. The Center facilitates a witness protection like process that settles defectors and foreign agents across the country. Once moved in, defectors are typically visited by NROC officers every few weeks. Otherwise, they are free to live their new life.
In Amiri's case, the resettlement was rocky and he began to long for his son. Sometime this spring, in a moment of weakness, Amiri called home. The CIA, while continually testing and examining Amiri to ensure he was not a double agent, began to reexamine his case after the call home. That fateful phone call set off a chain of events that finally ended yesterday when Amiri landed in Tehran and embraced his wife and son.
Iranians Threatened Amiri's Son
According to current and former US intelligence officials, Amiri disliked his wife so much he purposefully called a brother-in-law in an effort to speak to his son and refused to speak with his wife.
On a later, second call, Amiri's brother-in-law answered the phone and then handed it to Iranian intelligence officials. According to the officials, the Iranians threatened to hurt Amiri's son if Amiri did not agree to tape an internet testimonial. Amiri agreed, and gave a series of statements claiming he had been drugged, kidnapped and tortured by the CIA and flown against his will from Saudi Arabia to the U.S.
Upon learning of Iranian threats against Amiri's son and the interview, the CIA flew to Tucson and had produced their own video. In it, Amiri tells the camera he is happily living in the U.S. as a student and that he knew nothing of the Iranian nuclear program.
But the Iranian government now had its hooks in Amiri and American officials began to accept that they may not be able to convince Amiri to stay in the US.
According to the current and former US officials, the CIA began to look back at Amiri's case and suspected he had not been psychologically prepared to leave Iran.
Amiri "wanted to see his family again," said a US official familiar with the defection. "Defectors are human beings. In this country, they make their own choices. He made up his mind; in the United States, at least, he has that right."
Amiri told Iranian television this week in an interview that the CIA offered him a "bribe" of $10 million to appear on CNN and announce that he had willingly defected the US. On his return to Tehran Wednesday, Amiri repeated his claim that the CIA had taken him against his will.
A US official today said that Iran's story of kidnapping was a "fairy tale," and said that Amiri had come to the US willingly. He also said that before he went back to Iran, Amiri had given the US "significant, original information that's checked out."