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Filed under: Iran — Rick Moran @ 9:23 am

News that a retired Iranian General has defected to the west may prove to be one of the most significant events in the War on Terror to date. While questions surround the issue of who assisted his defection and exactly who he’s talking to, the fact remains that if reports of his past postings and potential knowledge of some of the most closely guarded secrets of the Iranian regime are correct, this defection could lead to an intelligence bonanza that will shake up the Iranian regime while filling in some of the gaps in our knowledge of some of their most secretive programs:

A former Iranian deputy defense minister who once commanded the Revolutionary Guard has left his country and is cooperating with Western intelligence agencies, providing information on Hezbollah and Iran’s ties to the organization, according to a senior U.S. official.

Ali Rez Asgari disappeared last month during a visit to Turkey. Iranian officials suggested yesterday that he may have been kidnapped by Israel or the United States. The U.S. official said Asgari is willingly cooperating. He did not divulge Asgari’s whereabouts or specify who is questioning him, but made clear that the information Asgari is offering is fully available to U.S. intelligence.

Asgari served in the Iranian government until early 2005 under then-President Mohammad Khatami. Asgari’s background suggests that he would have deep knowledge of Iran’s national security infrastructure, conventional weapons arsenal and ties to Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Iranian officials said he was not involved in the country’s nuclear program, and the senior U.S. official said Asgari is not being questioned about it. Former officers with Israel’s Mossad spy agency said yesterday that Asgari had been instrumental in the founding of Hezbollah in the 1980s, around the time of the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut.

Pajamas Media lays out some of the potential intelligence treasures Asgari might provide:

It is clear that Asgari is a man privy to numerous secrets which Iran desperately does not want revealed. As well as being a former deputy defence Minister, Asgari was also a General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). The IRGC, more than any other branch of Iran’s armed forces, is aware of, and has access to Iran’s nuclear program. Its members are in charge of monitoring and protecting Iran’s nuclear installations, and scientists.

Furthermore, the IRGC is in charge of developing and testing Iran’s missiles, an arsenal which Iran has threatened to use if attacked. Last but not least, the IRGC is in charge of training and arming Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iraqi Shiite militants in Iraq.

The idea that as head of the Rev Guards Asgari might have been privy to nuclear secrets seems to be contradicted in the WaPo piece by Dafna Linzer above. Linzer reports that his source says that Asgari is “not being questioned” about the Iranian nuclear program. Does this mean they just haven’t gotten around to it yet? Or is it disinformation on the part of the US official?

It actually rings true that Asgari would have limited knowledge of the Iranian nuclear program. The IRGC is not a monolithic organization. It has several quasi-independent commands, including the Qods Force that we’ve heard so much about recently. It wouldn’t surprise me if the vitally important task of guarding Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was given to one of these independent commands that report directly to Supreme Leader Khamenei. Hence, Asgari would probably be in the dark about many of the specifics regarding the nuclear program although he might be able to confirm once and for all whether the regime was truly working on building nuclear weapons.

Richard Fernandez examines some of the side issues to this defection:

To those who have long ago decided that America must withdraw from Iraq, this development must bring some disquiet. First, Asgari’s reception can be regarded as “provocative”. After all, if Teheran’s goodwill is necessary to gain an exit from Iraq, then encouraging the defection of one of their top officials hardly answers the purpose. Second, it underscores the fact that American policy is still vacillating between the polar opposites of creating an Iraq on US terms and withdrawing in good order to save face. It may be all Washington talks about, but on the crucial point of whether to stay and “win” in Iraq or accept it as another Vietnam there has been no closure, nor is any likely until a new President is elected in 2008. Lastly, whatever revelations Asgari may make may be viewed with suspicion by those who fear that the Administration is once again attempting to manipulate the public to support a policy unpopular with the other major party. Nor is this fear entirely unfounded because it is possible, though unlikely that Asgari in some subtle way may manage to project disinformation which will raise more questions than it answers. Like every opportunity, his defection raises both tempting prospects and dangers. Maybe Washington should send Teheran a message: who said life was easy.

This should make the meeting with Iran, Iraq, and Syria this Saturday very interesting. I doubt whether Iran will raise the issue but it will nevertheless color the background of the conversations - especially if the US has some new intel on Iran’s assistance to the militias and Shia terrorists.

Meanwhile, the question of who facilitated Asgari’s defection has taken on an almost comical air as each of the likely suspects either refuses to comment or politely denies any involvement:

Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, quoted the country’s top police chief, Brig. Gen. Esmaeil Ahmadi-Moqaddam, as saying that Asgari was probably kidnapped by agents working for Western intelligence agencies. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Asgari was in the United States. Another U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, denied that report and suggested that Asgari’s disappearance was voluntary and orchestrated by the Israelis. A spokesman for President Bush’s National Security Council did not return a call for comment.

The Israeli government denied any connection to Asgari. “To my knowledge, Israel is not involved in any way in this disappearance,” said Mark Regev, the spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry.

An Iranian official, who agreed to discuss Asgari on the condition of anonymity, said that Iranian intelligence is unsure of Asgari’s whereabouts but that he may have been offered money, probably by Israel, to leave the country. The Iranian official said Asgari was thought to be in Europe. “He has been out of the loop for four or five years now,” the official said.

That last statement about Asgari being “out of the loop for four or five years” is almost certainly wishful thinking on the part of the Iranian official - or an outright lie. He was a Deputy Defense Minister for 8 years prior to his retirement in 2005 according to DEBKA who also speculate that rather than defecting, Asgari was kidnapped in retaliation for the raid by the Qods Force in Karbala that ended in the execution style deaths of 5 US servicemen:

The missing general has been identified as the officer in charge of Iranian undercover operations in central Iraq, according to DEBKAfile’s intelligence and Iranian sources. He is believed to have been linked to – or participated in - the armed group which stormed the US-Iraqi command center in Karbala south of Baghdad Jan. 20 and snatched five American officers. They were shot outside the Shiite city.

An Middle East intelligence source told DEBKAfile that the Americans could not let this premeditated outrage go unanswered and had been hunting the Iranian general ever since.

As always, DEBKA offers up entertaining takes on what’s happening in the world. But their track record for accuracy is, shall we say, something less than stellar. Take the above with a grain of salt.

Our record regarding how we have handled high level defections in the past is also something less than stellar. In fact, two famous incidents during the cold war raise the question of why any high value defector would wish to come here in the first place.

In 1964, Yuri Nosenko, the highest ranking officer in the KGB to defect to the west at that time, was at first seen as an intelligence coup, on par with the Soviet’s triumph with “The Cambridge Five” - a shocking penetration of British intelligence that included Kim Philby and Guy Burgess helping to pass nuclear secrets to the Russians following the war. But once in the United States, Nosenko became the target of one of the most irrational and paranoid men ever to serve in the CIA - James Jesus Angleton - who believed the Soviet defector to be part of a Soviet disinformation campaign to throw the agency off the scent of an agency mole that was supposed to be ensconced at the highest levels of the CIA.

A short profile of Angleton shows what Nosenko was in for:

Angleton can do nothing right. Mangold repeatedly shows him making a mess of his marriage, indulging his passion for martinis, turning up at his Langley office at 11 in the morning, or rolling up drunk after lunch. But his innumerable personal failings were nothing to compare with the disastrous consequences of his professional actions. Mangold’s central charge is that Angleton, as a result of his cold-war obsession, fell under the spell of another KGB defector, Anatoly Golitsyn, who persuaded Angleton that the most important step in the Kremlin’s quest for world domination was the takeover of the Western intelligence services. They would become vehicles of Soviet disinformation, both through fake defectors and through “moles” within the services who would seek to ensure that the “disinformation” coming out of the Soviet Union was accepted back home as genuine information. Subscribing to this theory, Mangold asserts, led Angleton to demoralize the Agency and ruin careers through his vain hunt for “moles” burrowing away at Langley. In addition, he prevented the CIA’s Soviet Bloc Division from recruiting spies in the Soviet Union–its raison d’etre–in the fear that they might all be KGB agents. But this assault on paranoia itself bears the marks of the disease.

This led to an unbelievable ordeal for the Soviet defector. From 1964 until 1975, Nosenko was treated not as a defector, but as a Soviet double agent:

Mr. Nosenko is subjected to increasingly harsh and inhuman interrogation and confinement, even locked up in a “dungeon” for three years, tortured by sensory deprivation and physical, psychological and pharmacological abuse, but still never concedes that he’s a K.G.B. plant. Instead, the holes in this narrative are attributed to the sort of innocent mistakes and memory lapses that may have resulted from his trying to build himself up to make himself seem more important.

Nonetheless, Mr. Nosenko becomes the rationale for an Angleton-led witch hunt that tears apart and paralyzes the C.I.A. in its hunt for the Hidden Mole, and results in destructive rebuffs of genuine defectors, because of a paranoid “sick think” mindset that imagined a K.G.B. Master Plan of Deception and Disinformation that succeeded in befuddling the West—all of which resulted in Angleton’s firing, Mr. Nosenko’s rehabilitation and the triumph of the K.G.B. mole in the C.I.A., who had succeeded in turning the C.I.A. “inside out.” Indeed, some of the cult-like Angletonians were so paranoid that they believed the man who fired Angleton, the one-time head of the C.I.A. itself, William Colby, was the mole. (Mr. Bagley, who doesn’t buy it, nonetheless conceded that he’s heard muttering to this effect.)

The gritty details of Nosenko’s ordeal can be found in Gerald Posner’s Case Closed. Nosenko’s defection came on the heels of the JFK assassination and coincidentally, he happened to have been Oswald’s KGB baby sitter while the assassin was in Russia. It was thought by some at the agency who agreed with Angleton, that the Soviets sent Nosenko to assure the Americans that the KGB had nothing to do with the assassination. But that was just more paranoia. Nosenko had been spying for the Americans for months prior to his defection and it was just a good piece of luck that he happened to have had access to Oswald’s files while in Russia.

Nevertheless, Nosenko’s ordeal was truly horrific. And to this day, there are some at the agency who believe he was a plant. His story has been told not only in Posner’s book but also fictitiously in the recent Robert DeNiro film The Good Shepard where the idea that Nosenko was a double agent is advanced. Regardless of Nosenko’s true status (and most experts believe he was genuine) his beastly treatment would have given any potential defector second thoughts.

Then there was the incredibly bizarre story of Vitaly Yurchenko, a man who defected to the US and then, a few months later, simply walked away from his CIA handlers and re-defected back to Moscow. To this day, no one knows whether he was a genuine defector who suffered from second thoughts or a clever Soviet ploy to embarrass the Reagan Administration and learn details of CIA debriefings of defectors.

What makes this case even stranger is that Yurchenko fingered two CIA moles; Ron Pelton and Edward Lee Howard. The CIA let Howard slip through their fingers and escape to Moscow but Pelton was captured and convicted of espionage.

The details of his re-defection are pretty unbelievable:

All that seemed certain about the drama of the turncoat’s return was that the last act began at a casual bistro in bustling Georgetown, Au Pied de Cochon, where he went for dinner with a junior CIA security officer on Saturday night. As his escort was paying the check, Yurchenko suddenly asked a question. “What would you do if I got up and walked out? Would you shoot me?” Replied the CIA agent: “No, we don’t treat defectors that way.” “I’ll be back in 15 or 20 minutes,” Yurchenko said. Pause. “If I’m not, it will not be your fault.”

He did not come back, and it was not until late Monday afternoon that his whereabouts became public. At 4 p.m., Soviet Embassy Press Counselor Boris Malakhov called the Associated Press’s State Department correspondent to inform him that there would be a press conference in 90 minutes. “We’ll have Vitaly Yurchenko,” he said. Replied Reporter George Gedda: “Wait a minute. Did I miss something? He defected three months ago.” Said Malakhov: “Ah, there have been reports that he defected, but come to the embassy to find out what really happened.”

The fact that Yurchenko works as a security guard in a Moscow bank today probably means he was indeed a Soviet plant. But why give up two valuable agents? The simple answer is because around this time (1985) the Soviets recruited their most valuable asset and the worst traitor in CIA history - Aldrich Ames. By sacrificing the two lower level spies, the KGB would have thrown all suspicion away from Ames - at least for a while. After nearly 10 years of doing extraordinary damage to US national security (including giving the KGB information that led to the deaths of several Russian citizens who were spying for the United States), Ames was finally caught after a lengthy investigation by the FBI.

Any potential defector may have seen the incredibly lax security around Yurchenko that allowed him to just walk away as a red flag. An Iranian defector’s life especially would be in constant peril from Rev Guard “special action” squads (which President Ahmadinejad was reportedly part of when he was a commander in the Qods Force) that target dissidents and defectors. It would certainly have given Asgari pause which may be why he worked through the Israelis to plan his defection.

I should also point out that there have been other high level defectors who were treated very well and handled expertly by our intelligence people and proved to be a font of information that no doubt helped us win the cold war. But the Nosenko and Yurchenko cases have been publicized far and wide, no doubt impressing on foreign intelligence types the potential problems with giving themselves up to the Americans.

As the inevitable leaks from Asgari’s interrogation start flowing, it will be important to keep in mind the political context in which these leaks are taking place and not to give unnecessary weight to revelations that show the Iranian government in either a good or bad light. By definition, the leaks will be coming from people with an agenda - pro or anti military action against the Iranians - and thus they will be trying to influence what we should be doing about the regime. Unless there is some truly actionable intelligence gleaned from Mr. Asgari’s debriefings, it is best that we wait and see until more of the story of his defection can be told.


Allah has been on this story for two days:

Israel denies involvement. Alas, Asgari seems not to have been involved in the nuclear program so this isn’t quite the intel coup for which we’d hoped. Sounds like he was the man to know if you were a Shiite terrorist in Lebanon as of a few years ago, though, which should be of use to the IDF and Mossad. Plus there’s the propaganda windfall, plus the paranoia this must be seeding among the mullahs. How’d you like to be an officer in the Revolutionary Guard who was friendly with Asgari? Sleep with one eye open, jerkies.


I might also mention that Hizbullah has been expanding their foriegn operations in the last couple of years. Some names of Hizbullah operatives working overseas that Asgari might be able to pass along to us would, I’m sure, prove interesting and useful.

Ed Morrissey highlights the fact that Asgari served under President Khatami and may not have been able to stomach Ahmadinejad’s radicalism:

The tie to the Khatami regime could be significant. Khatami is what passes as a reformer in Iran, which means that he favored a more measured approach to international relations. Calling the US the “Great Satan” and Israel the “Little Satan” sufficed for stirring up anti-Western sentiment amongst the rabble for Khatami and his clique. They saw no need to dive into the waters of Holocaust denial and openly advocating for war with Israel and the US.

Asgari may have become disenchanted with the direction Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provided for Iran after the mullahs staged his election in June 2005. That appears to be around the time that Asgari left the Iranian government, although it seems he continued his work in intelligence. That would make Asgari one of the most valuable defections for Western intelligence in decades, not just in information but also in motivation. The mullahs not only have to stop all programs of which Asgari has knowledge, but they also have to wonder how many other disaffected Asgaris they are creating with their reckless domestic and foreign policy.


Allah reports that there is some question whether Asgari is in custody. One US source is telling Fox News and ABC’s The Blotter that we don’t have him and don’t know where he is:

A former Iranian deputy defense minister who disappeared from Turkey last month is not cooperating with Western intelligence agencies and his whereabouts remain a mystery, a U.S. official told FOX News Thursday…

[A] senior U.S. official flatly denied the [Washington Post’s] report…

The official did not rule out the possibility that Asgari, who once commanded Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and served as the country’s deputy defense minister, was conducting negotiations with an intelligence organization, but denied that there was any type of cooperation with the U.S.

Stop. My head hurts.

Anything is possible including the idea that his defection was made public way too soon and US officials are trying to throw the Iranians for a loop. A high value defection like this takes months, perhaps even years to debrief properly. Of course, the longer the Iranians are in the dark, the more information gleaned from interrogations can be confirmed and even used to gather more intel. But once the cat is out of the bag the Iranians will change their methods and sources - perhaps even roll up some operations in foreign countries that may have been at risk. That last possibility would be a huge disappointment because western intelligence could have latched on to the Iranian cells and observed them for months, spreading the net as wide as possible before springing the trap.

Or, WaPo’s Linzer may have been taken by a little disinformation campaign hatched by American intelligence to panic the Iranians into thinking we had Asgari. Watching what the Iranians do in response to that kind of news is an intelligence windfall in and of itself.

The idea that Asgari may be negotiating his defection also is possible. Asgari evidently has a family and if they’re still in Iran, he may want us to approach the Iranians about getting them out. Some reports have suggested they’re already gone but no confirmation as of yet.

Appropos of my title, I sure hope we haven’t screwed the pooch with this guy somehow.


  1. I’ll believe this guy defected when he appears in public and announces it.

    Comment by gregdn — 3/8/2007 @ 9:31 am

  2. [...] Update: Moran parses the contradictions and prays we haven’t blown it here. He thinks one possibility is that WaPo was purposely fed disinformation to see how the Iranians would react to the news, although in that case, why have a second U.S. official deny the reports the very next day? digg_url = ‘http://hotair.com/archives/2007/03/08/fox-news-senior-us-official-says-iranian-general-is-not-in-custody/’;digg_topic = ‘political_opinion’; [...]

    Pingback by Hot Air » Blog Archive » Fox News: Senior U.S. official says Iranian general is not in custody — 3/8/2007 @ 4:28 pm

  3. Just Asking

    Could Iranian defector Brig. Gen. Ali Reza Asghari be to the intelligence aspect of the global war on terror what Romanian General Ion Mihai Pacepa was to the intelligence war against the Eastern Bloc Communists?

    Trackback by alphabet city — 3/8/2007 @ 6:23 pm

  4. So let me get this straight. Angleton was paranoid about the CIA being compromised, he gets fired and his eventual successor as head of counter intelligence is turned by the Soviets.

    BTW, while living in Ann Arbor in the 70s, my ex and I had a roommate whose dad was a high level spook (and his mom was a federal administrative judge - there is no permanent government in Washington, not at all). Recently while googling the roommates name I found out that his dad replaced Angleton as head of counter intelligence.

    Comment by Bozoer Rebbe — 3/8/2007 @ 6:36 pm

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