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The mystery of Iran's nuclear defector

ABC News today published an "exclusive" scoop saying that an Iranian nuclear scientist, Shahram Amiri, has defected to the United States with the assistance of the CIA.

Except, er, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported the defection back in December, though the paper didn't say that Amiri had come to America and placed him in Europe at the time. The Telegraph's story was, however, more clearly sourced to "French intelligence sources" and contained a much richer account of how Amiri supposedly left Iran. The Telegraph also credited the subscription-only website Intelligence Online with breaking the news.

Also back in December, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki directly accused Saudi Arabia and the United States of colluding to "abduct" Amiri (amplifying some more indirect comments he had made back in October). The Telegraph story broke three days later.

The two accounts differ in important respects. According to ABC, "The CIA reportedly approached the scientist in Iran through an intermediary who made an offer of resettlement on behalf of the United States." But ABC doesn't say who reported that, and its story is sourced only to "people briefed on the operation by intelligence officials." (FYI: It so happens that a French delegation is in town for President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit.)

But Intelligence Online, the Telegraph says, reported that "The agency made contact with the scientist last year when Amiri visited Frankfurt in connection with his research work" and that "A German businessman acted as go-between. A final contact was made in Vienna when Amiri travelled to Austria to assist the Iranian representative at the IAEA. Shortly afterwards, the scientist went on pilgrimage to Mecca and hasn't been seen since."

Another apparent discrepancy between the two accounts concerns when the CIA began trying to recruit Iranian scientists. Citing "former U.S. intelligence officials," ABC says efforts to do so "through contacts made with relatives living in the United States" date back to the 1990s, whereas the Telegraph says a program called "the Brian Drain" began in 2005. It's not clear, however, whether the former officials were familiar with Amiri's case, or whether "Brain Drain," said to be aimed at inducing Iranian scientists to defect, was a separate initiative.

More to come, no doubt.

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