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Posted at 4:07 PM ET, 07/13/2010

Amiri should get a hero's welcome home

By Jeff Stein

Who knows why Shahram Amiri wants to go home?

Maybe he got tired of being asked to show his ID to Arizona police.

Maybe he got tired of questions from his CIA minder. Maybe he didn’t like Tex-Mex food.

Maybe it was a broken love affair, an unsolved illness.

Whatever the reasons, Amiri’s apparently imminent return to Iran evokes the “re-defection” of Vitaly Yurchenko, a senior KGB officer who had second thoughts about coming over to our side in the summer of 1985.

And that case offers a preview of the treatment Amiri can expect -- if the mullahs are smart.

A couple of months after he defected, Yurchenko excused himself from his CIA minder while they dined at the Pied de Cochon restaurant in Georgetown.

"I'm going for a walk," he said. "If I don't come back, it's not your fault."

He went to the Soviet Embassy.

In a dramatic press conference two days later, the Russian spy claimed that the CIA had kidnapped and drugged him.

Not true. It was tailored for Moscow's convenience.

Likewise, the erstwhile Iranian nuclear scientist Amiri walked into Iran's diplomatic mission Monday night claiming much the same, with about the same amount of credibility. We don’t torture people we like.

Now, the CIA and FBI -- not to mention Iranian intelligence -- will be sorting out the Amiri affair for a long time, if the Yurchenko case is any guide.

And it is. For years, a number of CIA people thought Yurchenko was on a KGB mission from the get-go, the idea being to elicit from his American debriefers what we knew about them.

U.S. counterintelligence officials will no doubt suspect the same of Amiri, whose Persian ancestors were practicing espionage when Russians were still living in huts.

But as it turned out, Yurchenko’s personal problems drove him into the arms of the CIA, according to KGB officials who talked after the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991.

He thought he was dying of cancer and came here for a cure, according to retired KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin, a former head of the service’s North American operations. He also had a mistress in Canada he hoped to lure from her husband, Kalugin said during a panel discussion a decade ago.

Kalugin also had a “hunch” that the KGB learned of Yurchenko’s love plot from a mole in the CIA and got to her before Yurchenko did: She turned him away.

“Then finally, he was overly protected,” Kalugin said. “He felt his freedom to move around was sort of limited by the CIA.…”

Likewise, Amiri now says he was suffering from "mental torture," according to a source who related what Amiri told the Pakistanis, who handle Iranian interests here. He kept insisting he wanted to leave Tucson, where he was said to be holed up, and go home.

When he gets there, he could be in deep trouble. No doubt he’ll be severely questioned.

And suspicions about him will linger forever. Indeed, some suspected Kalugin's story about Yurchenko was part of a continuing cover-up.

"Maybe ... there's still something you don't want to tell us," said James Olson, a former head of CIA counterintelligence on the panel, only half-joking.

But in the end, as with Yurchenko, it will be greatly in the mullahs’ interest to treat Amiri to a POW’s homecoming: It would send a strong message to other Iranian defectors that the motherland will welcome them back into her arms.

According to Kalugin, it was just such treatment by the KGB of a previous “re-defector” that gave Yurchenko confidence that he would be forgiven.

“Instead of execution, it was suggested that we play this record for all intelligence officers -- those who erred, those who committed a crime but found enough willpower to realize that they were wrong.”

“In fact this case worked well,” Kalugin said, in the Yurchenko affair.

“His pardon encouraged him to go back,” Kalugin added by telephone Tuesday. “He knew how the system would work.”

By Jeff Stein  | July 13, 2010; 4:07 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  
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This is a curious story.

If Amiri truly defected from Iran, why is he going back? Maybe he regretted his decision? Or maybe he had no access to privliged information and we sent him off?

If Amiri was kidnapped, it would be odd for us to just "release" him. He could easily tell his story to the Iranians and blow our entire operation. But, would the Iranians even believe him at this point?

Also, I wonder why he chose to defect to the Pakistani embassy. I know there is no Iranian embassy to defect to, but if he was truly here on his own free will, couldn't he just "go home" without having to seek the Iranian special interests section of the Pakistani embassy?

We will probably never know the full truth of this bizarre story.

Posted by: taureanb | July 13, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

"we don't torture people we like" is a loaded sentence, where at best a liberal paper admits "we torture some people." But, that funny fact aside, her is my take.

1. First he disappears like a messiah and reappears with the US denying having anything to do with it; now, "we" say it was a defection.

Then there are bizzare videos and youtube postings on both sides, before "we" rebrand it as "re-defection" which in MHO should be "repatriation" of a spy.

So, could it - and I don't want to be in Gizmo for saying this because "we" do torture - be yet another material intel failure in the US? Have "we" really become this incompetent, even after an admittedly Soviet example? Something is missing here.

Posted by: shabanian | July 14, 2010 11:28 PM | Report abuse

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