Let’s take another look at the long, strange journey of Shahram Amiri, which came to a sudden end this week at the end of a noose. Amiri claimed that the CIA kidnapped him from a pilgrimage to Mecca in 2009, and eventually returned home to Iran in 2010 as a hero for battling the US to get back. The nuclear scientist found his fortunes reversed rather suddenly over the next several months after his return, and it appears that e-mails sent to Hillary Clinton may have been the catalyst. Tom Cotton certainly thinks so, and Larry wrote up a very good summary of that case earlier this morning.
This case looks more like a whodunit than a slam-dunk case, however, given the Guardian’s report:
He received a hero’s welcome in Tehran and was portrayed as someone who had fled American captivity. The Iranian media extensively covered his return and a deputy foreign minister greeted him at the airport.
What happened next is unknown until opposition websites reported that he had been imprisoned and tortured in jail.
Before his return to Iran, the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton had said “Mr Amiri has been in the United States of his own free will” and that “he’s free to go, he was free to come, these decisions are his alone to make”.
In mid-July 2010, as Amiri returned to Tehran, the Washington Post reported that he was allegedly paid $5m by the CIA for the intelligence he had shared on Iran’s nuclear activities. Reports of Amiri’s imprisonment intensified speculation that he was forced to return by threats to his relatives, but the exact sequence of events that led to this remain unclear. In 2012, it was reported that he had been sentenced to 10 years in jail but Mohseni-Eje’i said on Sunday those reports were untrue and he had been sentenced to death from the beginning.
Four months prior to that, ABC News had also reported that Amiri had defected. We wrote about it at the time; it was hardly a secret. Amiri himself put out a couple of YouTube videos with conflicting claims about what he was doing in the US; in the first, he claimed to have come of his own free will, only later to claim he was hiding from the CIA. The number of leaks around Amiri’s status in the US certainly gave Iran plenty of indication that Amiri had come of his own free will and was almost certainly cooperating in the US — or so a paranoid regime like the Iranian mullahcracy would almost have to assume.
Jake Sullivan sent two e-mails to Hillary on her private server a week apart in July 2010. Neither mentioned Amiri by name, or the country involved in the case of “our friend.” The second, which was sent two days before CNN reported on the $5 million payout, warned of “problematic news stories” to come as a cover for Amiri’s return home. Amiri had grown impatient with his handlers and had gone to Iran’s “interests section” to get back.
The circumstances of his return seem curious, too. It’s very likely that the Iranians had never been fooled about Amiri’s status in the US, and started threatening his relatives to pressure him to return to Iran. The first e-mail, forwarded by Sullivan to Hillary, notes that Amiri’s videos were a “psychological” issue and that “our friend has to be given a way out.” That came almost immediately after Amiri’s videos went up. If that’s the case, then the Iranians simply milked his return for all the propaganda they could get out of it, and waited a short period of time to let the world forget Amiri before jailing him and sentencing him to death in 2012.
It’s possible, too, that the Iranians saw the e-mails and figured out that Amiri was the topic. If so, though, it’s not clear why they wouldn’t have hung him as soon as they got the e-mails — or in 2015, when State made the curious decision to release them unredacted. Neither of them mentioned any status with the CIA or payments for intelligence, information which the Post broadcast when Amiri first got back. It seems more likely that the Iranians forced Amiri to return, kept him twisting in the wind until the world forgot about him, and then spent the next several years interrogating and punishing him until his execution the last few days.
None of this, however, dilutes the issue of discussing sensitive intel sources on an unsecured and unauthorized e-mail system. That isn’t just a case of extreme carelessness — it’s grossly negligent, and it’s not the only case in which this happened. In other cases, State was smart enough to redact the e-mails to keep malevolent governments from guessing what had been discussed. It’s one reason among many that Hillary Clinton should have been prosecuted under 18 USC 793 (f). Amiri may or may not have been killed based on these e-mail exchanges, but it’s a sure bet other e-mails could have gotten people killed — which is why State did redact those e-mails with HUMINT classifications before publishing.