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Ali Reza Asghari: an Iranian defection of extraordinary sweep and US advantage
- Gordon Housworth [ 3/10/2007 - 19:47 ] #
An extraordinary February defection by an Iranian Major General, Ali Reza Asghari (also Asgari and Askari) must restructure the state of US-Iranian relationship in all its aspects. Asghari was a general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) and its Quds Force (also here), a deputy defense minister and an inspector general. He is credited with building Hezbollah in its current form in Lebanon. Asghari is so important that his impact on unraveling Hezbollah in Lebanon, possibly saving Israel from a second drubbing; his illuminating the Iranian nuclear program (and its chemical and biological efforts), possibly laying it transparent to the point that Russia and China would find it difficult to protect; and his very possible resuscitation of the US position in Iraq, at least reducing back to an internal affair (still no prize but better than an Iraq with sustained Iranian intervention), are only parts of a greater whole.
Until proved to the contrary, I rank Asghari as worthy of Iranian "panic" above and beyond the scope of his access to Iran's nuclear weapons program:
An extremely honest man who, as the Defense Ministry's Inspector General, revealed corruption and embezzlement only to be paid with arrest and a fall from power, Asghari makes a formidable spurned lover. Said to be an adversary of the current Iranian government, his eventual rehabilitation and assignment to offshore arms deals only provided the opportunity to orchestrate his escape. Required to secure permission to leave the country, Asghari was sent to Syria to supervise a Farsi-Syrian arms deal (his family shortly went out after his arrival in Damascus). While there, he advised Tehran that one of his arms dealers was in Turkey and wanted to meet. Permission was granted and soon Alice went through the glass.
What was claimed by the Iranains as a kidnapping has now uniformly turned to a defection, and one in the old school by which the entire family was brought out as well. (The departure of Asghari's family coupled with the fact that Asghari "sold his house in the Narmak area of Tehran in December " makes defection all the more plausible.) Although the Iranians began to spin Asghari as a harmless old retiree, the Turks were saying from the onset that Asghari had broad access to nuclear information. Not only will it be months, perhaps longer, before the Iranians build a picture of what has gone missing, there will be both a pull-back of assets and operations and a diversion of externally focused assets to evaluating Asghari's impact.
Steve Clemons is closer to my thinking in his comment that Asghari's strategic value is his "understanding decision-making in Iran's political system, the general intentions of Iran's Supreme Leader, and a better understanding of the structure and activities of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Quds force [which] probably outweighs what he can establish on real or illusory nuclear weapons programs." Again, Asghari's disclosures likely affect the full sweep of Iranian efforts, not just its nuclear efforts.
The note by MideastWire's Nicholas Noe to Joshua Landis at Syria Comment is the best and most detailed item on Asghari, but even that does reach the enormity of the breach. (As an aside, the annual subscription fees of MideastWire are modest, forming one of the better translation summaries for Arabic and Farsi media feeds. Recommended.) For starters, Noe snips from Arabic/Farsi texts to describe Asghari as:
Kenneth Timmerman's piece in NewsMax adds details to these points. English language articles early in the publicizing of Asghari's gone missing were largely a regurgitation of two items, one from Haaretz and the second from Ynet. A later Haaretz piece offers more data from the initial source, al-Sharq al-Awsat, which stated that Asghari defected to the US "along with the secrets he carried." CSM's Tom Regan offered a nice round-up of sources.
While most sources are channeling the idea that either the US or Israel are responsible, it is possible that the Iranian dissident group, Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), was responsible (also here). (The MEK has a checkered past, is listed as a terrorist group by the US yet resides or is held captive - take you pick - on a US facility in Iraq, operates in Turkey and interrogated the Iranian diplomats captured by the US in Irbil. Nothing is free of secondary effects; one of the bargaining chips that the US had in a potential negotiation with Iran was the ejection of the MEK from Iraq. If true, given the impact of Asghari's defection, one should expect Iranian efforts against the MEK as well as the MEK being a rising point of contention between the US and Iran.
While the Iran-initiated state visit of Ahmadinejad to Saudi Arabia for a summit meeting with King Abdullah went ahead, it is likely that Asghari's defection figured into Tehran's opening position to Riyadh. One wonders if the US can, and will, feed Riyadh in advance of the summit. Asghari can touch every interest of Iran, domestic, regional and global:
For a deeper structural look, see Nasser's The regional implications for the Saudi-Iranian dialogue. In any case, Ahmadinejad's one-day visit did not go swimmingly, at least for Tehran.
One wonders if the knowledge of Asghari's defection made the one day international security conference in Baghdad (10 March) slightly less contentious and how it influenced the one-on-one US-Iranian conversations. In the wake of IAEA punitive sanctions suspending a series of nuclear aid programs to Iran, Ahmadinejad has signaled his desire to attend a UN Security Council meeting to defend Iran's nuclear program. One wonders how the Asghari data will deflect his desire. Perhaps it is too early to see any Iranian deflection, nor might the US immediately be interested in showing its hand. Expect to see sparks eventually as Asghari is simply too powerful a source.
I do wonder about the extent of discontent within Iranian military and possibly some paramilitary cadres. In addition to the external aspects of Asghari's defection, the Iranian government has to concern itself with internal resistance:
I am not the first to think that Asghari's defection reverses US failures vis-à-vis Iran noted in James Risen's State of War in which the CIA inadvertently released enough identifying information to a double agent that allowed Iran to roll up the agency's network in Iran (forcing the US to depend upon "European, Israeli and Saudi intelligence capabilities") and Operation Merlin, a disinformation effort to mislead the Iranians in warhead trigger designs that boomeranged, handing a working design to Tehran. The Guardian has a good excerpt from the book describing these events, and also a note of interest.
While CIA chastised Risen for the "serious inaccuracies" in "every chapter of 'State of War'" and his "reliance on anonymous sources [that] begs the reader to trust that these are knowledgeable people," the agency then puts forth "knowledgeable current and former officials" to confirm that the leak occurred but that the "allegations that agents were lost as a result are not true." (See also Daniel Benjamin's comments.) But then what else can the agency say to domestic political ears and potential agents abroad.
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