Did top Iranian general defect?

A former Iranian deputy defense minister – a top general with key knowledge of the Revolutionary guard – is reportedly seeking asylum in the West.

Haaretz reports that Arab media says Gen. Ali Reza Asghari, who went missing last month in Turkey, is currently being questioned in a "northern European country" before going to the United States.

According to [al-Sharq al-Awsat], published in London, Ali Reza Asghari is undergoing thorough investigation by intelligence forces before being transferred to the United States.

Asghari, who is a retired general in the elite Revolutionary Guards, disappeared in Istanbul about a month ago. A hotel room was booked under Asghari's name, but several reports indicate that he never arrived at the hotel.

On Tuesday, al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that Asghari left for the US to seek asylum shortly after arriving in Turkey. Earlier Tuesday, Iran's top police chief, General Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghaddam, said Iran was investigating Asghari's fate with the cooperation of the Turkish police.

The Daily Telegraph reports that after days of speculation on Middle Eastern Internet chat rooms about the disappearance, Iran was forced to acknowledge that General Asghari had gone missing. The paper says that Asghari's defection could result in "an intelligence bonanza" for the West.

Menashe Amir, an Israeli analyst of Iranian affairs, claimed to have information that the Asghari family had left Iran "on holiday" shortly before the general's disappearance - adding weight to the defection theory.

"According to part of the information, his wife and children managed to leave Iran before his disappearance," Mr Amir told Israel's Army Radio, without elaborating on his sources.

Gen. Asghari flew to Istanbul from Damascus, the Syrian capital, and checked into a hotel. But after leaving his possessions in the room he never returned.

Iran's Fars News Agency reports that Iranian police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moghaddam says that Asghari may have been "kidnapped by Western intelligence services because of his defense ministry background."

However, The Washington Post writes that Asghari is "willingly cooperating" according to a US official, and that the intelligence Ashgari is providing is "fully available" to the US. The official did not specify who is questioning him or where he is, though.

The Post notes that Asghari was not involved in the Iranian nuclear program, and is not being questioned about it. However, former agents with Mossad, Israel's spy agency, say that Asghari was "instrumental" in the founding of Hizbullah in the 1980s. The Post suggests that Asghari may be able to offer information on Iran's role in the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut.

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 Australian reported on Tuesday that Asghari's disappearance has created speculation that either the US Central Intelligence Agency or Israel's intelligence agency Mossad was involved.

Debkafile, an Israeli website dealing with intelligence matters, reported this week that the CIA was interested in General Asghari because he was allegedly involved in the abduction two months ago of five US soldiers from a compound in Karbala, Iraq. The five were subsequently executed. Their seizure was reportedly ordered by Iran in order to obtain the release of Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers taken prisoner in Iraq shortly before by the Americans ...

According to Israeli sources, General Asghari was also commander of the Revolutionary Guard serving in Lebanon in the 1980s, liaising with Hezbollah when a downed Israeli navigator, Ron Arad, was sold by a Lebanese militia commander to the Iranians. The Israeli airman was never heard from again. Israeli officials have long contended that the key to his fate lies in Iran.

In Israel's first response to the reports, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, said accusations that Mossad was involved in the disappearance of the former minister are not true, writes Ynetnews. "We do not engage in that sort of activity," said Peretz, "and therefore have no reason to discuss it."

Nevertheless, Haaretz reports that Israel had already taken steps to increase security at its embassies abroad in case of retaliation, after reports appeared in the media that it was involved in the disappearance of the general.

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