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ICG Risk Blog - [ Ali Reza Asghari: an Iranian defection of extraordinary sweep and US advantage ]

Ali Reza Asghari: an Iranian defection of extraordinary sweep and US advantage


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:

  • Supreme "Follow the Money" architect for anything and everything to the point of rendering Iran transparent
  • Global supply chain and logistics for Iranian acquisitions, nuclear and non, with all the political implications thereof
  • Strategic architecture of global Iranian overt and covert operations, not just Lebanon
  • Operationally useful political portrait of the Iranian government and individuals

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 [2006]" 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:

[Asghari] was the IRGC liaison [in] Lebanon prior to the 2000 withdrawal and, as a principle of the armaments industry going forward, would have detailed knowledge of Hezbollah capabilities even after he left Lebanon:

Ali Reda Askari or Asghari:

* He holds rank in the Iranian Revolutionary guard equivalent to that of a Major-General.

* He succeeded Ahmad Kana’ni and Hussein Muslih in the command of the Revolutionary Guard units in Lebanon where he stayed for two years in the 90s. He frequented Sudan, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

* He was one of the top officials in the logistics department in the defense department during the Iranian-Iraqi war in the 80s.

* He headed the general committee responsible for running the largest weapons production facility in Iran.

* He was appointed an aide to the defense minister Admiral Ali Shamkhani responsible for logistics affairs and military purchases during the reign of President Ahmad Khatami.

* He was known for his financial integrity and gained fame after he uncovered a corrupt network inside the ministry headed by one of the top commanders of the Revolutionary Guide. This network had managed to swindle more than 160 million dollars in commission as well as 60 million dollars from bogus weapons’ deals.

* He was responsible for acquiring spare parts and equipment used in producing the Shehab 3 ballistic missiles.

* Turkish newspapers report that he was opposed to the Iranian government and that he possessed knowledge of the Iranian nuclear secrets.

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:

King Abdullah and Mr. Ahmadinejad are expected to discuss ways of ending the political standoff in Lebanon between the American-backed government of Fouad Siniora and Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran. Both countries are also concerned that growing sectarian tensions in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region could fuel further instability. "The last visit by an Iranian official to Riyadh was by national security chief Ali Larijani last month, but the Iranians were left feeling quite unsatisfied," said Adel al-Toraifi, a Riyadh-based Saudi analyst with close ties to the government.

Experts said talks had broken down when the Iranians balked at a deal that would increase Hezbollah’s representation in the government, but would also start an international tribunal to try suspects connected to the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005, a Saudi priority. Hezbollah took to the streets of Beirut in December demanding a greater role in the government, and threatening to continue its protest until Mr. Siniora resigns or gives its allies more seats in the cabinet.

"The Iranians want to come to an understanding with the Saudis," said Khaled Dakhil, professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh. "The Iranians want the help of the Saudis on the nuclear front, and they do want to improve relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia."

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:

Such an act would be interpreted as a major sign of discontent within senior Iranian military figures against his aggressive policies. With increasing dissatisfaction against Ahmadinejad emanating from Iran’s population; such a blow is something which Ahmadinejad can currently ill afford, and something that those who view him as a danger have been hoping for.

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.

Ahmadinejad intends to visit UNSC
Jerusalem Post
Mar. 11, 2007 10:18 | Updated Mar. 11, 2007 10:24

Iran Calls Baghdad Talks Constructive
The Associated Press
March 11, 2007; 8:12 PM

U.S., Iran Trade Barbs in Direct Talks
Associated Press
March 11, 2007, 5:23 a.m. ET

The regional implications for the Saudi-Iranian dialogue
Shehata M. Nasser
The Arab Washingtonian
Saturday, March 10, 2007

Former Iranian Defense Official Talks to Western Intelligence
By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post
March 8, 2007

Defection or abduction? Speculation grows after Iranian general goes awol in Turkey
· Former minister vanished from Istanbul hotel
· Fingers pointed at Mossad and anti-Tehran rebels
Julian Borger
The Guardian
March 8, 2007

Did top Iranian general defect?
Reports say 'missing' former deputy defense minister may seek asylum and offer intelligence to the West.
By Tom Regan
posted March 08, 2007 at 12:00 p.m. EST

Iran: Ex-Defense Official's Whereabouts Remain A Mystery
By Golnaz Esfandiari
March 8, 2007

U.S. Denies defection of Iran’s deputy defense minister
Ya Libnan
Thursday, 8 March, 2007 @ 2:39 AM

Key Iranian General and former Deputy Defense Minister May Haved Defected to United States
Steve Clemons
Washington Note
March 07, 2007

Report: Missing Iranian official being questioned in N. Europe
By Yoav Stern, and Haaretz Service
Last update - 16:33 07/03/2007

Panic in Tehran
PJM in Tel Aviv
Pajamas Media
March 7, 2007 12:30 AM

Saudi visit of Iranian president fails to lessen tensions
By Peter Symonds
Ya Libnan
7 March, 2007 @ 5:13 PM

"Iranian General Defects with Hizbullah’s Secrets," by Nicholas Noe
Joshua Landis
Syria Comment
March 7th, 2007

Federal News Service Moscow Bureau
7 March 2007

Iranian General Reportedly Defects
Kenneth R. Timmerman
March 7, 2007

Iran: West May Have Kidnapped Missing Official
News numbre: 8512160287
13:49 | 2007-03-07

Iran: Retired Defense Minister Missing
The Associated Press
March 6, 2007; 6:45 AM

Missing Iranian official may have information on Ron Arad
By Yoav Stern, and Haaretz Service
March 06, 2007 Adar 16, 5767

No U.S. Backup Strategy For Iraq
Outside Experts, Not White House, Discuss Options
By Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post
March 5, 2007

Israel involved in Iranian general's disappearance?
Former Iranian deputy defense minister vanished about a month ago on his way from Damascus to Turkey. Iranian officials say Mossad, CIA may have been involved in his disappearance
Dudi Cohen
Published: 03.04.07, 22:24 / Israel News

Iranian President & Saudi King plan summit talks on ME crises
Ya Libnan
2 March, 2007 @ 5:46 AM

Iran Says Its Leader Will Join the Saudi King for Talks on the Region's Conflicts
New York Times
March 2, 2007

The Elusive Quds Force
By Christopher Dickey and John Barry
Feb. 26, 2007 issue

The New Enemy?
Bush blames Iran’s Quds Force for a spike in anti-American violence in Iraq. Who are they, and how tight are their ties with Tehran?
By Michael Hirsh, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Mark Hosenball
Updated: 6:46 p.m. ET Feb 15, 2007

After the Mecca Accord, Clouded Horizons
New York Times
February 21, 2007

The Relationship Between Hizbullah & the United States In Light of the Current Situation in the Middle East
By Nicholas Noe
MPhil Thesis, Cambridge University Centre for International Studies
(N.B. - Modified October 10, 2006 after submission and approval)
July 2006

US blunder aided Iran's atomic aims, book claims
Julian Borger in Washington
The Guardian
January 5, 2006

George Bush insists that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. So why, six years ago, did the CIA give the Iranians blueprints to build a bomb?
The Guardian
January 5, 2006

Officials: Error tipped Iran to CIA agents
January 3, 2006; Posted: 8:43 p.m. EST (01:43 GMT)

The Scoop from 'State of War'
By Jan Frel
Posted January 5, 2006

Risen vs. Risen
Or, book standards vs. newspaper standards.
By Jack Shafer
Posted Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2006, at 10:05 PM ET

Underestimating Intelligence: Why it's not fair to give the CIA a failing grade.
By Daniel Benjamin
Posted Monday, Jan. 9, 2006, at 12:44 PM ET

Where Spying Starts and Stops: Tracking an Embattled C.I.A. and a President at War
Books of the Times | 'State of War'
January 9, 2006

State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration
by James Risen
ISBN-10: 0743270665
Free Press (January 3, 2006)

Iran: Defending The Islamic Revolution -- The Corps Of The Matter
By Houchang Hassan-Yari
Friday, August 5, 2005

Gordon Housworth

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