By Way of Defection

Is Iran hemorrhaging high-level officials?


Who is Ali Reza Asgari and why is he important? No one is quite sure yet, but when the Iranian general and former deputy defense minister disappeared in Istanbul earlier this year, suddenly everyone had a good spy story to follow. Did Asgari defect? Was he kidnapped by a foreign intelligence agency? And how does his fate affect the United States in its ongoing confrontation with Iran, if it does at all?

The story is roughly this. In February, Asgari traveled from Syria to Turkey, where he checked into a hotel before apparently going underground. According to Turkey's foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, the Iranian authorities informed the Turks 10 days after Asgari's arrival that they had lost contact with him. The Iranians were said to have initially refused to divulge Asgari's identity, or even provide a photograph. This compelled Gul to defend the Turkish reaction by saying: "If we don't receive information on a specific individual, then this individual can circulate in complete freedom in Turkey."

As the story gained prominence in early March, the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat quoted an unidentified Turkish source as saying that Asgari had defected. This came as Iran was claiming that the general had been kidnapped by U.S. or Israeli intelligence agents–prompting a tentative Israeli denial. Citing a U.S. official, the Washington Post reported on March 8 that Asgari was "cooperating with Western intelligence agencies, providing information on Hezbollah and Iran's ties to the organization." The paper did not specify who was interrogating him.

Another American official cited by the Post denied an Israeli news story that Asgari was in the United States, before suggesting that his "disappearance was voluntary and orchestrated by the Israelis." An Iranian official told the paper that Iran's intelligence service was unsure of Asgari's whereabouts, "but that he may have been offered money, probably by Israel, to leave the country." The official said the general was thought to be in Europe. "He has been out of the loop for four or five years now," the Iranian was quoted as saying.

Last weekend, London's Sunday Times hardened the mystery a bit further. The author, Israeli reporter Uzi Mahnaimi, quoted unidentified Iranian sources as saying that Asgari "had been spying on Iran since 2003 when he was recruited on an overseas business trip." Mahnaimi threw in some Ian Fleming by pointing out that Asgari had fled in a "daring getaway via Damascus … organized by western intelligence agencies after it became clear that his cover was about to be blown. Iran's notorious secret service, the Vavak, is believed to have suspected that he was a high-level mole." According to the Sunday Times, Asgari was at a NATO base in Germany being debriefed. "He probably was working for Mossad but believed he was working for a European intelligence agency," an Israeli defense source was quoted as saying. Mahnaimi added that there was "some evidence that the Mossad station in Istanbul was involved in shadowing Asgari after he arrived in Turkey."

An essential question is what Asgari took with him. The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat claimed on March 9 that Asgari had left Turkey on a new passport, under an assumed name, in cooperation with "Western parties." (English summary here) He allegedly carried off "military and intelligence maps and documents on the Iranian military establishment, and on relations between the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Mehdi Army, and the Badr Organization."

No less significant is whether Asgari managed to get his family out? The Sunday Times claimed that "[a]t least 10 close members of his family had to flee the country" with Asgari, including sons, daughters and daughters in law. If true, this would suggest he had considerable time to plan his departure, or at least was given great leeway, despite Vavak's purported suspicion. However, developments in Tehran on March 13 contradicted this. Asgari's wife, daughters, sons, and brother–or at least people claiming to be them–held a press conference denying he could have defected. Mrs. Asgari asked the Iranian authorities to find her husband, and claimed that he had actually disappeared in December, not in February.

The journalists present at the press conference were described by the Financial Times as "selected reporters", and the photos and news of the family were carried by the Fars news agency, linked to the Revolutionary Guards–the organization Asgari had been a senior official in. This might suggest the family's appearance was damage control. It also indicates that the details of the Asgari case are more complex than we know, particularly the timing of his vanishing. Moreover, Mrs. Asgari insisted that her husband's stated age of 63 was wrong, and that he was in fact 46, "thereby undermining speculation that he had been a leading figure in the Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon in 1983 when Islamic militants blew up the US embassy and its marine barracks."

Asgari may not be alone. In a story in Israel's Yedioth Aharonot last weekend, journalist Robin Bergman quoted a British intelligence official as saying that Iran's Consul General in Dubai, who was described as a Revolutionary Guards officer, had defected to British Intelligence. The source suggested the officer was providing information on Iranian activities in the Gulf. And yesterday, Al-Sharq al-Awsat affirmed that three weeks ago the Iranians lost contact with Colonel Amir Muhammad Shirazi, an officer in the Quds unit of the Revolutionary Guards stationed in Iraq. (English summary here.) The paper also reported that many other Iranians have collaborated with or gone over to the American side in Iraq in the past three years. It's always difficult to confirm such stories, however, and the information might conceivably have been exaggerated to destabilize the Iranians further in the wake of the Asgari affair.

The plot thickens, but where does it lead? Assuming a defection, Asgari's importance seems to be that he was the effective head of the Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon sometime in the 1980s. A former Mossad officer, Rami Igra, was quoted by the Washington Post as saying that "Asgari spent much of the 1980s and 1990s overseeing Iran's efforts to support, finance, arm and train Hezbollah."

Dates are important here. Hezbollah was only reorganized by the Iranians and brought together into a cohesive force in the late 1980s, four or five years after the bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the Marine barracks. Before then, the organization was a looser patchwork of groups with Iranian ties. It was during those earlier years that foreigners were kidnapped in Lebanon. Which phase, or phases, was Asgari involved in? And is the information he is providing useful for unlocking Hezbollah's decision-making today? Also, what does he know about the downed Israeli flier Ron Arad, who was probably taken to Iran from Lebanon, and was said to have been under Asgari's control? As a member of Iran's political-security elite, and as former Revolutionary Guards officer, he must have had access to sensitive information on Iran's dealings with militant Islamic groups. But the key issue is what operational value his information has.

If the U.S. played a role in Asgari's defection, it will boost morale in Washington after the intelligence debacle in Iraq. The episode shows that there are cracks in the Iranian system, and that these can be exploited by the plethora of intelligence agencies today cooperating against Iran's expanding influence in the Middle East. At a time when there are unconfirmed reports that the U.S. is involved in clandestine activities in Iran–particularly among the Sunni or Kurdish populations–this kind of breakthrough surely reinforces the value of human intelligence and the advantages of more traditional methods of spycraft.

The Bush administration and the Pentagon will be especially interested in Iran's ties with Iraqi Shiite militias, namely the Badr Organization and the Mehdi Army. Given that the head of the Badr Organization, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, was given an Oval Office audience with President Bush, the U.S. will be happy (or will it?) to know more about the relationship between its Iraqi partner and Tehran. More immediately, the intelligence agencies will probably want to get a better sense of what role Iran is playing in the Iraqi insurgency. If there is disagreement between the agencies, Asgari may turn into a valuable bureaucratic asset for one side or the other.

It may be too soon to judge how big an information coup Asgari's escape will turn into, but it's already a massive political one. The moral of the story is that if the U.S. wants to deal with Iran successfully, it has to do so as much in the darker recesses of state interaction than from the top of aircraft carriers. The Iranians have always been remarkable builders of institutions. If you're going to erode their self-confidence, those institutions have to appear vulnerable. Whatever Asgari divulges, the real impact of his disappearance is that Iran can be penetrated.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.