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Iranian Nuclear Expert Says U.S. Sought To Swap Him

Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri speaks with journalists as he arrives at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran on July 15, 2010.
Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri, who claims he was abducted by the CIA a year ago, says U.S. officials wanted him to confess to being a spy so they could swap him for three American hikers held by Tehran.

Amiri said U.S. officials wanted him to say he was "an intelligence agent of the Islamic Republic." He made his comments in an interview broadcast on Iranian state television on the evening of July 17.

"They said, 'if you say that you are an agent of the Iranian intelligence services, the U.S. can swap you as a spy who has been arrested in a foreign country with the three [American] spies who were arrested near the Iraqi border inside Iran,'" Amiri said.

"They said it is common practice among intelligence agencies in different countries."

Iran claims that three American backpackers, arrested in Iran in July 2009, are spies.

Washington has repeatedly called on Tehran to release Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, insisting that the American citizens were holidaymakers who had innocently strayed across an unmarked part of the Iran-Iraq border. U.S. media have questioned whether the three were even in Iranian territory at the time of their arrest.

'Intense Psychological Pressure'

Amiri arrived in Tehran on July 15 and said he was abducted in Saudi Arabia by CIA agents. U.S. authorities deny the claim.

In a high profile news conference in Tehran upon his arrival, Amiri said while he was held in the United States he had been put under "intense psychological pressure" to cooperate. He said Israeli agents had been present during his interrogations.

The U.S. State Department said Amiri was in the U.S. of his own free will.

Meanwhile, Western media has quoted U.S. officials as saying Amiri was an informant for the CIA inside Iran for years, who provided "significant, original” information about secret aspects of Iran's nuclear program.

"The New York Times" quoted unidentified officials as saying Amiri provided detail of how a university in Tehran became the covert headquarters for Iran's nuclear program.

And "The Washington Post" reported on Friday (July 16) that Amiri was one of two informants the CIA whisked out of Iran in 2009 because of concerns that Iranian officials had discovered they providing secret information.

Amiri was reportedly offered a $5 million reward package by the U.S.

Britain's "Sunday Telegraph," however, claims Amiri's return to Tehran has prompted suspicions that he was a double agent working for Iran all along.

Hero's Welcome

Amiri, the 32-year-old employee at the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization had disappeared in June 2009 during Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. He later surfaced in several videos posted on YouTube. Last week, Amiri turned up at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, saying he wanted to return to Tehran.

He returned to a hero's welcome in the Iranian capital, although it remains unclear if his story has convinced Iranian authorities and the Iranian public.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki was quoted as saying the authorities would wait until they knew "what has happened over these past two years, and afterward we will see if he will be considered a hero."

Western intelligence experts say Amiri will face scrutiny by Iranian intelligence agencies once his propaganda value fades.

"They will keep him in fear and in doubt as to what his eventual fate will be," Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst told Associated Press.

"From the private, official Iranian point of view, this guy is an awful traitor. If it weren't for the public relations aspect, he might have been strung up yesterday already or shot."

Western media likens Amiri to a veteran KGB agent Vitaly Yurchenko who had defected to the U.S. in 1985 but three months later he apparently changed his mind and returned to Moscow. Like Amiri, Yurchenko told reporters that the CIA was behind his defection from the Soviet Union and claimed that he was offered $1 million by the CIA to cooperate with the agency.

compiled from agency reports