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Panic in Tehran Over Defections

Kenneth R. Timmerman
Wednesday, March 14, 2007

 WASHINGTON -- The Iranian government is in full damage control mode over the recent defection of a top Revolutionary Guard general and former deputy defense minister, well-placed sources in Tehran tell NewsMax.

Iranian government officials have issued a series of contradictory claims about the defection of Gen. Alireza Asgari, 63, who "disappeared" from his hotel room in Istanbul, Turkey on Feb. 7 and reportedly defected to the United States.

But in recent days, the mood within intelligence circles in Tehran has turned to panic as rumors have begun to circulate that a second well-placed Revolutionary Guards general has defected.

When reports of Gen. Asgari's disappearance first surfaced last week, the regime immediately claimed that he had been "abducted" while on an overseas vacation, either by an Israeli or a U.S. intelligence unit. This ploy was backed by former Revolutionary Guards commander Gen. Mohsen Rezai, who now publishes an independent Internet news site in Persian,

"Rezai is close to Gen. Asgari," NewsMax sources in Tehran said, "and so he has been eager to paint Asgari as a devoted officer of the Revolutionary Guards who most certainly was kidnapped by U.S. or Israeli secret services."

On March 10, Baztab reported that Gen. Asgari's wife — previously reported to have left Iran with him — was actually in Tehran. If true, this would tend to credit the notion that Asgari had been abducted, and not defected.

As it turns out, Gen. Asgari has two wives. His first wife left Iran with him, bringing along their three children. His second wife, Mansoureh Mirmohammadi, is just 31 years old and is a relative of Rezai, the sources said. She has indeed remained in Iran.

 Shortly after Gen. Asgari went missing on Feb. 7, a damage control team headed by Rev. Guards Brig. Gen. Naser Ghasemi was set up.

Gen. Ghasemi is the deputy chief of counterintelligence for the Revolutionary Guards. Over the weekend, he recommended that the regime blame the "kidnapping" of Asgari on the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a militant opposition group that was supported all during the 1980s and the 1990s by Saddam Hussein.

On Sunday, Baztab dutifully quoted Rasoul Nafisi, an Iranian political analyst based in Virginia, asserting that the MEK was responsible for Asgari's kidnapping, noting that the group "is active in Turkey . . . and might be behind this event."

Since then, various state-run news outlets and newspapers owned by senior government officials have published a series of contradictory reports about Asgari's disappearance.

Perhaps the strangest account was published on Monday by the Fars News Agency in Tehran. They claimed that Asgari's wife — now named Ziba Ahmadi — and three of his children had just met with the second secretary of the Turkish embassy in Tehran to inquire about Asgari's whereabouts.

 Ms. Ahmadi then told state-run Tehran radio that her husband was "43 years old" but had retired "in the last two years" and was engaged in "import-export trade with Syria," primarily in olive oil.

She added that he went missing on Dec. 9 — not Feb. 7, as previously reported. NewsMax sources in Tehran believe that Ms. Ahmadi is an actor hired by the regime, not the wife of Gen. Asgari.

Her account was repeated in today's Guardian newspaper in London, which quoted Davoud Asgari, the brother of the missing general, who lives in London, claiming that his brother had been kidnapped and that all his family remained in Iran.

All this comes as no surprise to Iranian commentator Alireza Nourizadeh, who told NewsMax last week to expect a "smear campaign" against Gen. Asgari in the state-controlled media.

"In the next few days, they will make every effort to destroy this man's reputation," he said. "This man came out with lots of secrets."

Gen. Asgari's defection comes as the United States continues to interrogate Iranian intelligence officers captured by U.S. forces in Iraq.

The two most prominent Iranians are Jalal Sharifi, a professional intelligence officer posing as a diplomat, who was captured during the raid on an Iranian "consulate" in Irbil on Jan. 10, and Brig. Amir Mohsen Shirazi, a Revolutionary Guards intelligence operative captured in December in southern Iraq.

 In recent days, intelligence circles in Tehran have been awash with rumors of a second high-level defection to the Americans of a Revolutionary Guards intelligence officer, Brig. Gen. Seyed Mohammad Soltani.

Gen. Soltani is a career intelligence officer, who took over as head of the Persian Gulf bureau of Rev. Guards intelligence in October 2006. On Feb. 8, just one day after Gen Asgari disappeared in Istanbul, Gen. Soltani traveled to Bandar Abbas, where he was scheduled to inspect an intelligence listening post. Instead, he vanished.

Bandar Abbas is Iran's largest port and houses the Rev. Guards main naval base. It sits at the mid-point of the strategic Strait of Hormuz, where 20 percent of the world's oil transits daily.

So far, the official media in Tehran has not mentioned Gen. Soltani's alleged disappearance and defection. But NewsMax sources in Tehran said that his wife and two children have also disappeared, and that the Revolutionary Guards searched his house in the Amirieh district of Tehran searched on Feb. 11.

On Feb. 13, Rev. Guards counterintelligence officers informed the Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS) of Gen. Soltani's disappearance. On the following day, they sent a "red notice" with Soltani's photograph to all Iranian ports and airports. On Feb. 18, they arrested Soltani's brother, Seyed Akbar Soltani, who is a teacher at Imam Hussein University.

 Gen. Soltani was known as "Engineer Mousavi" within Revolutionary Guards intelligence, and has intimate knowledge of foreign intelligence operations, especially in Iraq and in other Persian Gulf countries.

"How the United States treats these defectors is critically important," said opposition activist Sardar Haddad. "If they treat them well, the word will get back to Tehran and you could see the flood gates open. Lots of people are available for the taking under the right conditions."

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