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Iran Mystery: Is the "Un-Defecting" Scientist Shahram Amiri in Solitary Confinement?

Shahram Amiri and Family, Tehran, July 2009It has been a week for sensational but shakily-sourced stories about Iran. First, there was the vision --- drawn from a suspect claim in a WikiLeaks document --- of the commander of the Revolutionary Guards slapping President Ahmadinejad across the face.

Now it is the spectre of Tehran punishing one of its own nuclear scientists, putting Shahram Amiri --- who wound up in the US, either through defection or abduction, but then returned to Iran this summer to an enthusiastic reception from Government officials --- in solitary confinement under sustained interrogation.

But just as the past headlines on Amiri have been murky --- did he really spill Iran's nuclear secrets to US intelligence services? was he taken against his will to America? how did he make it back to Iranian soil? --- so this latest development has a rather narrow foundation.

Before repeating and recycling the tale as truth, it might be useful to establish from where it came and how it broke into the international media.

The story emerged almost a week ago on a website called Iran Briefing. The outlet, based in the US and run by expatriates, is primarily devoted to examining the role of Iran's security services in politics and economics as well as military policy, but it also posts information on human rights and legal cases.

The dimensions came together in the Amiri case, with his possible involvement in the nuclear programme and the Revolutionary Guards' interest in him intersecting with the legal drama of his alleged detention and interrogation. The website claimed that Amiri initially had been taken to a safe house in East Tehran after he returned to Iran in July. At the end of October, however, he was moved to a Tehran prison and put in solitary confinement. He is sustaining "physical and psychological torture" and has been in the Army Hospital on at least one occasion.

The source for this dramatic narrative? "A family member."

This is not to say that the claim is false. Rather, it is to point that almost no one in the "mainstream" media, reciting the story, appears to have an idea of the background or how the tale emerged.

That is because Iran Briefing's story on Amiri is in Persian --- it does not appear anywhere on its English-language site. So it may well have remained in obscurity had it not been picked up by an Associated Press correspondent on Monday. (We first saw the story when it was posted in the Israeli YNet News.)

To give AP credit, its treatment of the story showed that it had considered the Iran Briefing story carefully:

The Farsi-language account posted on the website claims to pick up Amiri's trail after his highly publicized return. It cited anonymous family members as saying Amiri was first held in a safe house in Tehran and allowed weekend visits with relatives at the Talaiie cultural center, which is operated by Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard.

The website quoted family members as being told that Amiri's movements were restricted for "his own safety."

The report says - without citing any source - that Amiri was later moved to a former military lockup, the Heshmatieh Prison, in Tehran, where he allegedly faced harsh interrogations and beatings that left him in a military-run hospital afterward for a week.

The website is operated by the IranBriefing Foundation, which describes itself as a "non-profit human rights organization" based in the United States that focuses on the role of the Revolutionary Guard and other Iranian security agencies. Officials at the group could not be reached immediately for comment.

But, of course, that did not mean that those who followed would be so judicious. Outlets like the American ABC News and The New York Times, never went to the original story; indeed, none --- not even the AP --- linked to the account. At best, some took snippets of the AP coverage and left out others: signficantly, the fact that the claim was based on an unnamed "family member" (not members as AP reported) fell away. Some did not even mention Iran Briefing. 

Iranian media, understandably, have almost all stayed away from the story. There is, however, one exception: Khabar Online, the outlet of Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, has posted what appears to be a genuinely bemused note on "AP's new claim".

So what then is the situation with Amiri? The murky truth is that we do not know. The best we can do is stay observant and return back to the prediction --- not the confirmation, but the prediction --- made by a well-placed EA correspondent when Amiri returned to Iran.

The scientist, our correspondent judged, would initially be greeted as a hero. Then he would be "disappeared" in Iran's system, like others who have revealed unpleasant episodes such as the Chain Murders of the late 1990s.

That, for the moment, sits along a single interesting but far-from-established source.

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