CAIRO, Egypt — An award-winning Iranian nuclear scientist traveled to Saudi Arabia earlier this year to perform a religious pilgrimage. He never returned.
Shahram Amiri's mysterious disappearance is turning into a Middle Eastern whodunit involving nuclear secrets and political intrigue, with a new round of accusations emerging this week and the U.S. government still refusing to comment.
There are two big questions: Was Amiri spirited away by Saudi-backed American covert agents? Or did the scientist seize the chance to defect to the West, offering sensitive information in exchange for asylum?
Finger-pointing in Amiri's case has heightened tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which are bitter rivals for regional dominance and self-proclaimed guardians of Islam's two main sects. Iran claimed earlier this week that Saudi Arabia conspired with U.S. agents to abduct Amiri in June and transfer him to the U.S., presumably for interrogations about Iran's controversial nuclear program.
"Based on existing pieces of evidence that we have at our disposal, the Americans had a role in Mr. Amiri's abduction," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told a news conference Tuesday, according to a translation by the state-backed PressTV agency. "The Americans did abduct him. Therefore, we expect the American government to return him."
Mottaki added that because the disappearance occurred in Saudi Arabia, the authorities there "must be held accountable in this regard."
On Wednesday, Ali Larijani, the Iranian speaker of Parliament, went a step further by publicly accusing Washington of "terrorist behavior" and claiming that it was clear that that Amiri's disappearance was "organized by Saudi conspirators."
The Obama administration has kept mum on the case, with State Department spokesman Philip Crowley telling reporters this week that the U.S. is "aware of the Iranian claims" and saying he had no further information.
Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the region, lashed out at Tehran Wednesday. A popular Arabic-language newspaper reported that officials "deplored" the accusations and insisted that Saudi forces already had scoured Islamic holy cities in search of the missing scientist.
"After having been informed of his disappearance by the Iranian delegation, Saudi authorities undertook an intensive search in Medina as well as in all the hospitals in the region of Mecca," Saudi foreign ministry spokesman Osama Nugali told the Saudi-backed regional newspaper al Sharq al Awsat in Wednesday's edition.
Amiri traveled to Saudi Arabia on a religious pilgrimage in late May or early June. He vanished in June, and there's been no reliable word on his whereabouts since. Amiri is said to be in his 30s, with a wife and other relatives still in Iran, though McClatchy couldn't independently verify that information.
Iranian news agencies have described Amiri as a physicist who conducts research for the country's Atomic Energy Organization and the Malek e Ashtar University of Technology, which is affiliated with the Iranian defense ministry. Reports say Amiri won a national award for his service to Tehran's nuclear program. It's unclear what level of security clearance Amiri held or how important he is to the Iranian program. Iran waited months before even acknowledging that Amiri was a nuclear scientist.
With so little solid information available in Amiri's case, speculation is rampant in intelligence and diplomatic circles, with rumors ranging from the abduction or defection scenarios to the possibility of Israeli agents assassinating Amiri as part of what's been called a shadowy "decapitation program" allegedly targeting Iran's top nuclear scientists.
Mohamed al Saied Idriss, an Iran specialist at the Cairo-based al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said all the rumors and accusations could've been cleared up months ago if Saudi Arabia and Iran had even nominally decent relations. Instead, the matter has festered and could complicate future nuclear negotiations with Tehran.
"It's Iran's mistake that he left the country — they should've known he could be subject to kidnapping or he could be compromised," Idriss said. "And there's been talk that the Americans interrogated him and managed to get information that helped them in discovering the nuclear facility at Qom."
Four months after Amiri's disappearance, Western intelligence agencies disclosed the existence of a previously unannounced Iranian nuclear facility outside the city of Qom, fueling speculation that Amiri was in the U.S. sharing nuclear secrets. There's been no confirmation, however, that Amiri had anything to do with the discovery of the underground facility at Qom, and U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly had suspected such a site near Qom for two or three years.
The U.S. and its allies fear Iran is striving to attain a nuclear weapons capability, though the Iranian leadership maintains it seeks nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes such as generating electricity.
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