From Newsmax and today's Washington Post, we're learning more about Iranian General Ali Rez Asgari, the former Deputy Defense Minister and Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander who has defected to the west, and is cooperating with intelligence agencies.
In the Post account, reporter Dafna Linzer highlights Asgari's connections to Hizballah, noting that the Iranian general was instrumental in organizing the terrorist group and spent much of the 1980s and 1990s in southern Lebanon, managing Iranian support efforts. Former Israeli intelligence officials indicate that Asgari will be a treasure trove of information on Tehran's ties to the terror organization, and how the group operates:
Former Mossad director Danny Yatom, who is now a member of Israel's parliament, said..."He is very high-caliber... He held a very, very senior position for many long years in Lebanon. He was in effect commander of the Revolutionary Guards" there.
Ram Igra, a former Mossad officer, said Asgari spent much of the 1980s and 1990s overseeing Iran's efforts to support, finance, arm and train Hezbollah. The State Department lists the Shiite Lebanese group as a terrorist organization.
"He lived in Lebanon and, in effect, was the man who built, promoted and founded Hezbollah in those years," Igra told Israeli state radio. "If he has something to give the West, it is in this context of terrorism and Hezbollah's network in Lebanon.
U.S. intelligence officials also indicated that Asgari's debriefing will focus on his knowledge of Hizballah and Iran's support for terrorist organizations. Sources who spoke with the Post suggested that the former IRGC official apparently does not have detailed information on Iran's nuclear program. However, Newsmax's Kenneth Timmerman, an expert on defense and security matters, reports that Asgari was involved in secret nuclear procurement projects and manged three of Iran's missile projects in the mid-1990s.
As for General Asgari's current whereabouts, speculation is varied and vague. The Israeli paper Haaretz suggested that the defector is already in the United States. The Iranians believe he is in Europe, and other sources suggest that he is in Israel, or in an Israeli-controlled safe house in Europe. Tehran is also attempting to depict Asgari as a defector with limited value, a standard tactic in such matters.
But such claims may not be accurate. Newsmax indicates that Asgari was on an official trip from Iran to Syria when he disappeared in early February. After arriving in Damascus (to coordinate a recently-signed arms deal with the Syrians), General Asgari arranged a side-trip to Istanbul, which was also approved by officials in Tehran. Newsmax also suggests that the defection was in the works for some time; Asgari sold his home in Tehran in December, and his family left the country two days after his trip to Damascus. Iranian counter-intelligence missed those obvious indicators, and let the general slip away.
As we noted on Tuesday, Asgari's routing through Istanbul (and subsequent disappearance) was no coincidence. While it is not highly publicized, the Turks and Israelis maintain a close military and security relationship. It would be relatively easy for a Mossad team to operate in Turkey, with Ankara either "blissfully unaware" of the pending defection, or cooperating fully with Tel Aviv. By the time Tehran got wind of what happened, Asgari, his family, and his handlers were long gone.
An Iranian political analyst in Washington observed that it will "take months" for Iran to realize what it lost, referring to the damage control effort that Tehran must conduct. On the other hand, it will take us almost as long to understand what we have gained. As with any informer or defector, the information provided by General Asgari must be carefully checked and vetted against other reports and sources. The odds that Asgari is a double-agent or "plant" are decidely low, but in the spy game, you can never be too careful.
Still, as Ken Timmerman notes, there must be a lot of nervous people in Tehran.