SCORE! Iranian defence minister in US hands

  1. SCORE! Iranian defence minister in US hands

    Posted March 08, 2007 12:31 PM

    Former Iranian Defense Official Talks to Western Intelligence
    By Dafna Linzer
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, March 8, 2007; Page A16

    A former Iranian deputy defense minister who once commanded the Revolutionary Guard has left his country and is cooperating with Western intelligence agencies, providing information on Hezbollah and Iran's ties to the organization, according to a senior U.S. official.

    Ali Rez Asgari disappeared last month during a visit to Turkey. Iranian officials suggested yesterday that he may have been kidnapped by Israel or the United States. The U.S. official said Asgari is willingly cooperating. He did not divulge Asgari's whereabouts or specify who is questioning him, but made clear that the information Asgari is offering is fully available to U.S. intelligence.

    Asgari served in the Iranian government until early 2005 under then-President Mohammad Khatami. Asgari's background suggests that he would have deep knowledge of Iran's national security infrastructure, conventional weapons arsenal and ties to Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Iranian officials said he was not involved in the country's nuclear program, and the senior U.S. official said Asgari is not being questioned about it. Former officers with Israel's Mossad spy agency said yesterday that Asgari had been instrumental in the founding of Hezbollah in the 1980s, around the time of the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut.

    Iran's official news agency, IRNA, quoted the country's top police chief, Brig. Gen. Esmaeil Ahmadi-Moqaddam, as saying that Asgari was probably kidnapped by agents working for Western intelligence agencies. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Asgari was in the United States. Another U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, denied that report and suggested that Asgari's disappearance was voluntary and orchestrated by the Israelis. A spokesman for President Bush's National Security Council did not return a call for comment.

    The Israeli government denied any connection to Asgari. "To my knowledge, Israel is not involved in any way in this disappearance," said Mark Regev, the spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry.

    An Iranian official, who agreed to discuss Asgari on the condition of anonymity, said that Iranian intelligence is unsure of Asgari's whereabouts but that he may have been offered money, probably by Israel, to leave the country. The Iranian official said Asgari was thought to be in Europe. "He has been out of the loop for four or five years now," the official said.

    Israeli and Turkish newspapers reported yesterday that Asgari disappeared in Istanbul shortly after he arrived there on Feb. 7. Iran sent a delegation to Turkey to investigate his disappearance and requested help from Interpol in locating him.

    Former Mossad director Danny Yatom, who is now a member of Israel's parliament, said he believes Asgari defected to the West. "He is very high-caliber," Yatom said. "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."

    The organization, led by Hasan Nasrallah, is believed to have been behind several attacks against U.S., Jewish and Israeli interests worldwide, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans, and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed more than 80 people.

    Israel fought a bloody, month-long war with Hezbollah last summer in south Lebanon after the group seized two Israeli soldiers. The soldiers have not been returned and their fate is unknown. Other Israeli soldiers have vanished in Lebanon during decades of conflict along the countries' shared border, most notably an Israeli airman named Ron Arad. Yatom said it is possible Asgari "knows quite a lot about Ron Arad."

    In a January briefing to Congress, then-Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte described Hezbollah as a growing threat to U.S. interests. "As a result of last summer's hostilities, Hezbollah's self-confidence and hostility toward the United States as a supporter of Israel could cause the group to increase its contingency planning against United States interests," Negroponte said.

    U.S. intelligence officials said they had no evidence that Hezbollah was actively planning attacks but noted that the organization has the capacity to do so if it feels threatened.

    Correspondents Scott Wilson in Jerusalem and Anthony Shadid in Beirut and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


  2. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Iran: Ex-Defense Official's Whereabouts Remain A Mystery

    By Golnaz Esfandiari

    March 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The fate of a former Iranian defense official remains a mystery a month after his disappearance in Turkey.

    At least one Iranian official has suggested that onetime Deputy Defense Minister Alireza Asghari was kidnapped by Western intelligence services. Others have claimed the retired general defected to the West.

    Asghari vanished without a trace shortly after arriving in Turkey in early February.

    Radio Farda's correspondent in Turkey, Ali Javanmardi, says Turkish newspapers broke the news of his disappearance.

    "On February 27, 'Hurriyet' daily reported that an Iranian who has very important information regarding Iran's nuclear activities had disappeared in Istanbul," Javanmardi says. "For the first time, it was also said that Mr. Asghari arrived in Istanbul from a Damascus flight on February 7 and checked into the Hotel Ceylan three days later. Following a meeting with an unknown individual, he disappeared."

    Asghari's hotel reservations, for three nights, were reportedly made before his arrival by two non-Turkish citizens. Some reports have suggested that Asghari moved to an Iranian-owned hotel.

    Tehran Speaks

    Iranian officials initially remained silent as reports emerged in the Turkish, Israeli, and Arab media. Then in early March, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki stated publicly that "a retired staff member" from the Defense Ministry had gone missing during a private trip to Turkey. He said Tehran was pursuing the case through diplomatic channels.

    On March 6, Iranian police chief Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam said the former defense official had likely been kidnapped by Western intelligence services because of his background. He did not give further details.

    The 63-year-old Asghari was a deputy defense minister under President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). He reportedly served as a commander in Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) during the Iraq-Iraq War (1980-88).

    In The Loop?

    Alireza Nourizadeh, a London-based journalist, says the retired general also played a role in Lebanon. He says Asghari owed his political rise to former Defense Minister Ali Shamakhani and his abrupt departure to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

    "Following the [Iran-Iraq] war, he was among the staff members who were sent to Lebanon," Nourizadeh says. "He led the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) forces in Lebanon. At that time, he used the name 'Reza Asaker.' Later, because of his relation to Admiral Ali Shamakhani and because Shamakhani trusted him, he became a deputy defense minister. After Ahmadinejad's government came to power [in 2005], Mr. Asghari was automatically dismissed, but they gave him an advisory [post]."

    Nourizadeh claims that Asghari's recent responsibilities included a 2006 military deal between Iran and Syria.

    Lebanon And Nukes

    Speculation has swirled about Asghari's familiarity with highly classified information about Iranian ties to the Lebanese militant group Hizballah as well as Iran's nuclear program.

    Officials in Iran say the country's nuclear activities are entirely peaceful. But Washington and Israel accuse Iran of secretly pursuing nuclear weapons.

    Iran also says that it provides only spiritual and moral support to the Lebanese Hizballah. But accusations are rife that Iran is providing the Lebanese group with missiles and other weapons.

    Some reports suggest that Asghari might possess knowledge about an Israeli pilot, Ron Arad, who went missing after ejecting from his aircraft over Lebanon in 1986.

    Usual Suspects

    Some sources have said that Mossad or the CIA might have kidnapped Asghari for his knowledge of top-secret Iranian activities.

    Others have suggested that the disappearance bears the hallmarks of the Mujahedin-i Khalq Organization (MKO), a group that seeks the overthrow of Iran's government.

    But a number of recent reports have hinted that Asghari defected to the West. "The Washington Post" today quotes an unnamed senior U.S. official as saying that Asghari is "cooperating with Western intelligence agencies, providing information on Hezbollah and Iran's ties to the organization."

    Ephraim Kam, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and deputy head of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, says he thinks circumstances point to a defection.

    "I think logically -- and I emphasize only logically -- I tend to assume that he asked for political [asylum] because I think it's going to be quite dangerous for Israel, even for the United States, to kidnap him," Kam says. "Because the Iranians might respond with the same coin, and it's going to put many Israeli officials [in danger] and also the Americans."

    Citing an "Iranian military source," the London-based newspaper "Asharq al-Awsat" newspaper reported on March 7 that Asghari "is currently in a northern European country in American custody." The paper claimed that Asghari is being interrogated ahead of his transfer to the United States.

    Nourizadeh says he suspects that the former Iranian defense official had planned his defection.

    "Asghari has maybe felt that it would be better for him to cooperate on his own, since reportedly the U.S. intelligence services have files on people like him -- this could be one reason," Nourizadeh says. "Another reason might be that he thinks the Islamic republic [Iran] is facing dangerous conditions -- the country is being led toward war -- and he feels that if he parts with the establishment he might prevent a catastrophe."

    But in the absence of any firm evidence, Nourizadeh's and others' theories about this prominent disappearance remain so much speculation. And a mystery that Iranian authorities and others are eager to solve.

    Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. RADIO FREE EUROPE / RADIO LIBERTY

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