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March 11, 2007

Iranian General That Defected Was Spy For West

Topics: Iran

It sounds almost like a spy novel, and maybe too much so. On the other hand, if the Times of London version of the story is true, it makes the mullahs look like bungling fools and the West has indeed got a wealth of much needed information on Iran's terror ties.

Brigadier General Ali Reza Asgari, 63, Iran's former deputy defence minister who defected to the West last month, apparently (and I do mean "apparently") had been spying on Iran since 2003 when he supposedly had been recruited on an overseas business trip. This weekend he is understood to be undergoing debriefing at a Nato base in Germany after he escaped from Iran, followed by his family:

A daring getaway via Damascus was organised by western intelligence agencies after it became clear that his cover was about to be blown. Iran's notorious secret service, the Vavak, is believed to have suspected that he was a high-level mole.

According to the Iranian sources, the escape took several months to arrange. At least 10 close members of his family had to flee the country. Asgari has two sons, a daughter and several grandchildren and it is believed that all, including his daughters-in-law, are now out of Iran. Their final destination is unknown.

Asgari is said to have carried with him documents disclosing Iran's links to terrorists in the Middle East. It is not thought that he had details of the country's nuclear programme.

An Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Aharonot, claimed this weekend that Mossad, Israel's external security service, had orchestrated his defection. There is some evidence that the Mossad station in Istanbul was involved in shadowing Asgari after he arrived in Turkey via Damascus last month.

It is unclear which intelligence organisation he was spying for. "He probably was working for Mossad but believed he was working for a European intelligence agency," said an Israeli defence source.

Asgari's escape has provoked alarm in the Iranian regime. "Asgari is a gold mine for western intelligence," said an Israeli defence source. "We have been following him for years, especially since the late 1980s when he was commander of the Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon."

In 1997 he was appointed deputy defence minister in charge of internal investigations. He uncovered several cases of embezzlement in the Republican Guard that made him unpopular. He was pushed aside after President Mahmoud Ahmadine-jad came to power in 2006. The two had been rivals for many years and Asgari realised that his days were numbered.

During an overseas business trip in 2003 he is said to have met a new business partner, who turned out to be a foreign intelligence officer. "Ali Reza was a wealthy man even before 2003," said an Iranian source. "Since 2003 he has become a very wealthy man."

On February 7, four days after arriving in Damascus and having been assured his family was safe, Asgari boarded a flight to Istanbul. He was given a new passport and left Turkey by car - to disappear into the shadows.

So, how much of the Times story can we believe? From the Times we hear that although it's still unclear as to which intelligence organization he was spying for, according to an Israeli defense source he probably was working for the Mossad but believed he was working for a European intelligence agency (assuming he's not and Iranian double agent which is unlikely, given that his entire family has been ushered out of Iran and that the authenticity of the documents he brought out with him are likely to be authenticated sooner or later).

And as Captain Ed points out, Asgari has likely come close to the end of his usefulness, and Iran's regime clearly comes is at the loosing end of the stick:

... His defection ends his value as a mole; we assumed that he had defected in order to get us information, but it really leaves us a little more blind from February 7th onwards. He will be able to analyze information coming out of Iran for Western intel agencies and his experience will prove valuable, but having Asgari inside the Iranian establishment was a much better situation for us than having him outside of it.

The defection embarrasses Teheran, and it will touch off destructive mole hunts and damage control purges that almost certainly will reduce the readiness and effectiveness of its military and intel organizations. It makes the mullahcracy look like a bunch of amateurs playing at Great Game aspirations, and it further undermines their credibility at home. The only positive for Tehran is that Asgari can no longer get new information to the West, but that may well be akin to locking the barn door after the horse has bolted -- and leaving Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to clean up the stable.

All in all, the week went bad for Ahmadinejad and the mullahs; Iran's economy is failing, and domestic unrest is increasing. Overall, I'm inclined to believe that Asgari's defection is real, that Iran's regime, especially in the case of Ahmadinejad, is not where it wanted to be at this juncture, and that the West has known much more about what Iran has been up to than we've suspected.

Alternative Opinion: From commenter NahnCee at Captain's Quarters - "If Iran knew or strongly suspected he was a mole, what are the chances they were feeding him misinformation? If he knew lots about Hizbollah, and was recruited by Israel, does it follow and make sense that Israel was so hapless in their pursuit of their war against Hizbollah last summer?Maybe Iran publicized his defection to let him and his handlers know that they knew about him and his information could be worthless ..."

Related reading: Iran's Dissenters - HERE'S HOW International Women's Day was celebrated Thursday in Tehran.

Posted by Richard at March 11, 2007 1:05 PM

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