Iran accuses US in disappearance of atomic scientist
Researcher was on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia
TEHRAN - Iran accused the United States yesterday of involvement in the disappearance of one of its nuclear scientists during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, raising a new mystery at a time when the West is trying to determine the extent of Iran’s nuclear program.
Shahram Amiri vanished during a pilgrimage to the kingdom more than four months ago and Saudi Arabia has not responded to requests for information on his whereabouts, Iranian officials say. But in complaints about his disappearance Iranian officials have avoided mentioning that Amiri was involved in nuclear research, a sign of the sensitivities surrounding the case.
His disappearance came months before the revelation of a second uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom that the United States accuses Iran of building secretly, which Tehran denies. The timing has raised speculation that Amiri could have given the West information on it or other parts of Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s announcement of the disappearance also comes as it has entered landmark nuclear negotiations with the United States and other world powers, talks that have somewhat eased rising tensions between the sides. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praised last weeks negotiations in Geneva yesterday, calling them positive and saying that they have “led to a better dialogue.’’
The United States and some of its allies accuse Iran of secretly seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a claim Iran denies, saying its program is intended only to produce electricity.
Amiri worked as a researcher at Tehran’s Malek Ashtar University, which is believed to be run by the elite Revolutionary Guard military corps. The university has been cited in the past by the UN for experiments connected with the nuclear program.
Relatives cited in Iranian media said Amiri was researching medical uses of nuclear technology at the university and that he was not involved in the broader nuclear program.
One Iranian news website said Amiri had worked at the Qom facility and had defected in Saudi Arabia. The website, Jahannews, which is connected to Iranian conservatives, gave no source for the report.
Amiri’s wife and other relatives have demonstrated in recent weeks in front of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, demanding to know his fate. His wife said he traveled to Saudi Arabia on May 31 for Omra, an Islamic pilgrimage, and that the last she heard from him was in a June 3 phone call, according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said yesterday that Amiri had been arrested and accused the United States of a role.
“We’ve obtained documents about US involvement over Shahram Amiri’s disappearance,’’ Mottaki said.
“We hold Saudi Arabia responsible for Shahram Amiri’s situation and consider the US to be involved in his arrest.’’
Iran has asked Saudi Arabia for information on Amiri’s whereabouts but has received no reply, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hasan Qashqavi said earlier this week.
There was no immediate comment from Saudi officials. In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian C. Kelly said he had no information. “The case is not familiar to us,’’ Kelly said.
The Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, which is owned by Saudi businessmen, reported last week that Mottaki made a formal complaint to UN chief Ban Ki-moon about the disappearances of Amiri and several other Iranians in recent years, some of whom it feared might have provided nuclear information to the West.
Qashqavi this week denied the complaint made any mention of the nuclear issue.
Also on the list Mottaki handed over was Ali Reza Asghari, a retired general in the elite Revolutionary Guard and a former deputy defense minister, who disappeared during a private visit to Turkey in December 2007. Iran accused Western intelligence services at the time of possibly kidnapping the official, though other reports have said he may have defected.