WASHINGTON — An Iranian scientist who defected to the U.S. returned home amid an escalating propaganda war between Tehran and Washington but without $5 million he had been paid for what a U.S. official said was significant information about his country's nuclear programs.
The CIA paid Shahram Amiri a total of $5 million to provide intelligence, but Amiri did not take the money with him, the U.S. official, who was briefed on the case, said Thursday. The funds were barred by U.S. Treasury sanctions that prohibit the flow of American dollars to Iran.
"Anything he got is now beyond his reach, thanks to the financial sanctions on Iran," said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because public discussion of the case was not authorized. "He's gone, but the money's still here."
The official said Amiri had provided the CIA with "significant, original information" that the agency was able to independently verify, although he would not detail the scope of the intelligence he provided. There was also no indication, the official said, that Amiri might have been a double agent sent by the Iranians to learn what the CIA knows about its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Still, several former American intelligence officers said Thursday that Iranian intelligence officials would be expected to debrief Amiri to try to learn every last detail about the exchanges that took place between him and his CIA handlers — a process that could take weeks or even months.
The former officers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of those exchanges, said Iranian intelligence would try to exploit any information to hunt for existing American spies.
Iran's leaders are expected to use Amiri to ring up as many propaganda points as possible against Washington, and within hours of the former defector's arrival in Tehran, the war of words heated up.
Iranian officials touted Amiri's claim he had been abducted by U.S. agents, while a U.S. State Department official parried with a call for three long-imprisoned American hikers to be released and treated similarly to Amiri, who they said was allowed to return to his homeland.
U.S. officials have insisted that Amiri was neither kidnapped nor coerced into leaving Iran and that he made the decision to come to the U.S. without his family. The U.S. official added that Amiri decided to return to Iran to see his family again.
The money paid to Amiri came as part of a "brain drain" program aimed at inducing Iranian scientists and others with information on the country's nuclear program to defect, according to a former U.S. intelligence official.