Of Spies and Centrifuges

In April 2009, a young Iranian, Shahram Amiri, disappeared in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Ostensibly there to perform the hajj, Amiri had in fact brokered a deal with the CIA to provide information on Iran’s nuclear program. Leaving his wife and child behind in Iran and a shaving kit in an empty Saudi hotel room, Amiri fled to America, received asylum, pocketed $5 million, and resettled in Arizona. Formerly a scientist at Malek Ashtar University, one of several institutes harboring Iran’s nuclear endeavors, Amiri conveyed the structure of the program and intelligence about a number of key research sites, including the secret facility at Fordow. 

The story might have ended there. But according to Jay Solomon, chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and author of The Iran Wars, what happened next “emerged as one of the strangest episodes in modern American espionage.” A year after Amiri defected, he appeared on YouTube, claiming that the CIA had drugged and kidnapped him. In fact, Iranian intelligence had begun threatening his family through their intelligence assets in the United States. Buckling under that pressure, Amiri demanded to re-defect. In July 2010, he returned to a raucous welcome in Tehran, claimed he had been working for Iran all along, and reunited with his son. Of course this was not the end of the story. Amiri soon disappeared, and in August 2016, shortly after Solomon’s book was published, he was hanged. 

Amiri’s saga exemplifies the kinds of stories that Solomon tells throughout his account of the U.S. struggle with Iran. Amiri was just the latest victim in 30 years of spy games between the United States and Iran, a conflict, Solomon writes, “played out covertly, in the shadows, and in ways most Americans never saw or comprehended.” The Iran Wars draws on a decade of Solomon’s Middle East reporting to trace that history, urging readers who are caught up in centrifuge counts and sanctions relief to view Iran’s nuclear build-up as part of its broader clash with the United States—and sometimes between the United States and itself. 

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About the Author

Jordan Chandler Hirsch is a former staff editor of Foreign Affairs and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University. 


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