Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The General Vanishes

Update/11:12 a.m. PST. Brian Ross of ABC is reporting that General Asghari, along with his family, fled to a "European country," and he is cooperating with the U.S. I'm still betting that he will eventually wind up here, largely for security reasons. It will be very interesting to learn the reasons for his defection, and whether he was a long-term operative for U.S. intelligence. On the plus side, we can glean a lot of valuable information from this former IRGC officer. The downside is the potential loss of an "inside" source, particularly if he was someone who provided information for a period of years, much like Ryszard Jerzy Kukliński, the legendary Polish Army Colonel who was one of our most important spies during the Cold War.

Hat tip: Discarded Lies.


From AFP, here's an intriguging story about a senior Iranian general who "disappeared" during a visit to Turkey last month. Turkish police indicate that Ali Reza Asghari went missing three days after he checked into an Istanbul Hotel, and has not been heard from since.

Asghari, who served as Deputy Defense Minister during the "reformist" administration of former President Mohammad Khatami, was also a senior commander in Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and reportedly has detailed knowledge of that nation's nuclear program, and its ties to Hizballah. Israeli media reports that Asghari previously served as Iran's top liaison with various terrorist groups (including Hizballah), and was in charge of "special" IRGC missions in southern Lebanon in the 1980s.

The general's disappearance has touched off speculation that he has defected to the west, or was abducted by either U.S. or Israeli intelligence agents. That speculation was further fueled by rumors--as yet unsubstantiated--that Asghari disappeared after U.S. troops arrested five Iranian officials in the Iraqi city of Irbil, and accused them of providing support to terrorists targeting American troops. According to one account, information uncovered in the Irbil raid led U.S. agents to Asghari in Turkey.

As for the Israelis, they have their own reasons for going after Asghari. His tenure in southern Lebanon coincided with the disappearance of an Israeli Air Force navigator--Ron Arad--who was shot down in 1986. Some reports suggest that Arad was eventually transferred to the IRGC, and Israel has long maintained that Iran holds the key to determining the airman's fate. Asghari's knowledge of the Arad case, coupled with his access to Iran's nuclear secrets, provide powerful motives for an Israeli abduction.

Of course, rumors about an "abduction" may be nothing more than a cover story for a defection. In most media accounts about his disappearance, Asghari is identified as a "former" IRGC official, suggesting that he had retired from active duty. His close ties to the Khatami regime may have made Asghari suspect in the eyes of the current government, particularly if the general was viewed as a potential spy. Tehran launched a crackdown against spies inside its nuclear program two years ago, believing that some officials were passing information to western intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency. If Asghari was a spy, the trip to Turkey (and his subsequent disappearance) may have simply been the first steps in a pre-arranged escape plan, arranged by the CIA or the Mossad.

There are other possibilities as well. As a former senior military officer, Asghari likely had a hand in planning and coordinating periodic crack-downs against ethnic Kurds in northwestern Iran and southeastern Turkey, making him a target for abduction and murder by Kurdish militants. There's also the chance that Iranian agents, believing that the general was a spy or about to defect, followed Asghari to Turkey and killed him, using speculation about a U.S. or Israeli abduction to cover their tracks.

At this point, my first hunch leans toward the defection scenario. If a Kurdish group assassinated Asghari, there likely would have been some sort of public claim, along with the dumping of his body to confirm the hit. By comparison, Asghari's "vanishing act" in Istanbul suggests someone who wanted to disappear, and probably had some help in the process.

And it's no coincidence that Asghari disappeared in Turkey. Both the U.S. and Israel have strong military and security ties to Ankara, making it easier for a CIA or Mossad team to mount a defection (or abduction) operation, with cooperation--or at least a blind eye--from Turkish authorities. Judging from the tone of the AFP report, it sounds like Ankara isn't overly concerned about Asghari's disappearance, suggesting that it probably knows more about the situation than it's willing to disclose. If I had to guess, I'd say that Asghari is currently in a safe house in the U.S. or Israel, and being debriefed by a hand-picked team of intelligence agents.


ADDENDUM: The linked report says that Tehran is sending a team of diplomats to conduct a search for the missing general. That means the initial effort (led by Iranian intelligence operatives), failed. The diplomats will try to lean on Ankara for more information, while the Turks will smile politely and pledge their "full cooperation." However, the odds are low that the diplomats will glean any significant information. Tehran understands that Asghari has flown the coop, the trail has grown cold, and the diplomatic trip is little more than a prefunctory, face-saving effort.

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