Report: Iranian Ex-Deputy Defense Minister, Missing 4 Years, in Israeli Jail
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
12 Dec 2010 20:51
[ dispatch ] Over the past decade Israel has been waging a war against Iran's nuclear program. In addition to an intense propaganda campaign by AIPAC, its main lobby in the United States, that consists mainly of grand exaggerations, half-truths, half-baked half-truths, and even lies, the campaign has had one main focus: decapitating the program either by assassinating Iran's top nuclear scientists, or wooing them to defect and reveal information about the program.
In July 2001, Colonel Ali Mahmoudi Mimand, known as the father of Iran's missile program, was found dead in his office with a bullet in his head. No culprit was ever identified, but Israel was widely suspected to be behind the assassination.
Dr. Ardeshir Hassanpour, a leading, award-winning figure in Iran's nuclear program, was murdered on January 15, 2007. The relatively liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted a report by Stratfor.com (the website of Stratfor, a firm involved in analysis of military, political, and intelligence issues, known as "the private CIA") that he was killed by Israel's Mossad.
Most recently, this November 29, Professor Majid Shahriari, a prominent figure in Iran's nuclear program and a faculty member at Shahid Beheshti University's nuclear engineering department, was assassinated. On the same day, there was also an assassination attempt on Dr. Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, another central participant in Iran's nuclear program and Shahid Beheshti faculty member, as well as a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps since its inception in 1979. Abbasi was one of the first figures in Iran's nuclear program to be directly sanctioned, under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1747. Once again, Israel is widely believed to have been involved in the assassination of Shahriari and the failed attempt to kill Abbasi.
Another Israeli tactic has been the penetration of Iran's nuclear program via computer malware. It is now widely believed that the Stuxnet worm was deliberately planted in the Iranian nuclear facility computer networks. It acted similar to a multiple-warhead missile -- one copy attacked the computers at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, apparently causing extensive damage, to the point that the rate of production of low-enriched uranium there fell to almost zero (the virus may have done this by "ordering" the centrifuges to spin at very high speed, which crashes them); another copy attacked the computers that run the light-water nuclear reactor in Bushehr, again causing considerable damage and delaying its full operation by at least a few months.
Then there are the cases of defection, such as that of Shahram Amiri, a junior figure who was working at Malek-e Ashtar University, which is linked with Iran's military. He apparently defected to the United States in May 2009, but when it turned out that he did not have much information about Iran's nuclear program, the CIA lost interest in him. He also was unhappy with his treatment and finally returned to Iran.
The second case claimed by the Western press as a defection is that of Brigadier General Alireza Asgari. As a Revolutionary Guard officer stationed in Lebanon in the 1980s and early 1990s, he worked closely with the Lebanese Hezbollah. In the administration of President Mohammad Khatami, he served as deputy minister of defense. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 and appointed Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, another Guard commander, as the new defense minister, Asgari was pushed out and apparently retired.
In fall 2006, Asgari traveled to Syria and from there to Istanbul. According to his wife Ziba Ahmadi, he arrived there on December 7. He was supposed to stay in Ceylan (pronounced "Jeylan") Hotel and return to Tehran on December 10. He called her on December 9, but never returned. His wife contacted the hotel on December 11 and was told that he was not there.
There have been all sorts of speculations about his fate. Yoav Stern of Haaretz asserted on March 5, 2007, that Asgari "may have defected." Two days later, the Jerusalem Post claimed that he had been in Europe and was then taken to the United States. However, Niles Lathem and Oron Dan of the New York Post reported on the same date that U.S. officials denied that he had been transfer there. On March 8, 2007, Dafna Linzer of the Washington Post reported that Asgari was indeed in the United States and willingly cooperating with the CIA. The next day, Lathem reported that Iranian dissidents living in Europe and the United States had helped Asgari to defect. It was claimed, in particular, that Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, a former Guard officer in the Quds force who turned against the hardliners and now lives in Europe, had a hand in Asgari's defection.
These reports, however, were countered by others indicating that Asgari was in an Israeli prison. Some Arab diplomats have reportedly said to the media that he was kidnapped by the CIA and/or Mossad. On November 15, 2009, the Associated Press quoted the website Alef -- run by Ahmad Tavakkoli, a Majles deputy from Tehran and cousin of the Larijani brothers -- as saying that Iran believes that Asgari is in Israeli detention.
New information has now emerged. Richard Silverstein, who blogs on Middle Eastern issues, reports that he has received confirmation from a reliable source in Israel that Asgari is indeed incarcerated in Unit 15 of Ayalon prison. Silverstein had already reported on June 13,
Earlier today, Yediot Achronot published a story about a Mr. X imprisoned in an Israeli jail. The man was in solitary confinement. His jailers did not know who he was, did not share a word with him, no one came to visit him. No one seemed to know he was there. They didn't even know what crime he had committed or how he came to be in the prison. His prison cell was completely isolated from other prisoners and he couldn't communicate in any way with them.
As Silverstein now explains about the specific location where Asgari is reportedly being held, "This cell in Ayalon's Unit 15 is the same one specially built to hold Yigal Amir, assassin of Yitzhak Rabin. In other words, it is meant to isolate the prisoner from the outside world and the rest of the prison system."
The report still does not clarify the reason for Asgari's disappearance. It could be that he originally defected. The Sunday Times of London claimed that he had been spying for the West since 2003. But no supporting evidence of any sort has ever been presented. If he defected, then why is he in a prison in Israel? It could be that when Israel realized that he had information about the Hezbollah and, in particular, the eventual fate of Ron Arad, the Israeli pilot captured in Lebanon who was never heard from again, he was transferred from the United States or Europe. Or, it could be that he was actually kidnapped.
I personally find it hard to believe that Asgari planned to defect. If he had such a plan, why did he not take his family with him to Turkey? Why has he not called his family for four years? Why is his wife still looking for him, saying that she has never heard from him since December 9, 2006? In addition, it is well known that when Iranians who have held high-ranking government positions retire , they are forbidden from traveling abroad for many years. Given that Asgari was an active Guard officer for a long time and had access to a considerable amount of sensitive information, it is inconceivable that he was allowed to travel to Syria and Turkey, unless he was still working with the government on a secret mission. If so, if he were planning to defect, I find it difficult to believe that the Guard intelligence unit or the Ministry of Intelligence would not have noticed anything unusual about him.
Whether Asgari defected or was kidnapped, one thing is clear: He did not have any bombshell information about Iran's nuclear program. Since his disappearance in December 2006, no smoking gun has been discovered that indicates that there may have been a diversion from Iran's nuclear program to nonpeaceful purposes. Perhaps Asgari played a role in the conclusion of the National Intelligence Estimate released in November 2007, less than a year after he disappeared, which declared that, if Iran had a nuclear weapon program, it abandoned it in 2003.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau