General Ali Reza Asgari, a former intelligence officer in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and deputy defense minister until 2005, was last seen in public around December 7 in Istanbul. Iran says Israel and the United States kidnapped him, presumably to coerce him into telling lies about Iran. The Washington Post has reported he is in U.S. custody, spilling his guts, and more recently the New York Times reported that the German defense minister, when asked about Asgari's whereabouts, said "I cannot say anything on this issue." But both the U.S. and Israel deny having him, let alone kidnapping him.
Normally, vanished intelligence officers barely merit one short paragraph on page eight. Asgari is different, though. As the IRGC commander in Lebanon in the late '80s and early '90s, he knows dirty secrets, secrets that could be used to justify going to war with Iran. Asgari was in the IRGC's chain of command when it was kidnapping and assassinating Westerners in Lebanon in the '80s. Asgari knows a lot about other IRGC-ordered, Lebanon-based terrorist attacks, including the October 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut and the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.
As IRGC commander in Lebanon, Asgari was also one of Hizballah's stepfathers. In the late '80s and early '90s, he was Hizballah Secretary General's Hasan Nasrallah's primary Iranian contact, and certainly in a position now to provide evidence of Nasrallah's involvement in terrorism. Asgari was the primary Iranian contact for one of the world's most lethal and capable terrorists, 'Imad Fa'iz Mughniyah. Mughniyah is indicted in the U.S. for the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 and the murder of a Navy diver.
The bad news for Hizballah and Iran doesn't end there. Asgari would be able to tell us about Hizballah's secret military commanders, its overseas networks, and possibly its cells in the U.S. A friend close to Hizballah's leadership tells me Hizballah has gone to battle quarters, concluding Asgari's "kidnapping" is a prelude for its next round with Israel.
The more important question is what Asgari's possible defection would mean for this Administration's plans for Iran. Nothing is certain when it comes to Iran, but here's what I think we should look for: If Asgari resurfaces in the next couple months with a detailed, convincing bill of indictment against Iran and Hizballah (unlike Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's supposed confession), we should expect a confrontation. For instance, in the late '80s Hizballah, under IRGC orders, sent plastic explosives to secret cells around the world. Only one shipment was intercepted. The others are presumably still in place. If Asgari helps us dig one up, the Administration has a propaganda weapon it never had going into the Iraq war.
On the other hand, if Asgari remains in his inkwell, the Bush Administration may have decided to leave Iran alone.
Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down