The mystery surrounding a former Iranian general believed to have defected to the U.S. or Israel has taken an even more puzzling turn.
The individual in question, Ali Reza Asgari, left Iran three years ago and turned up in Istanbul. He is a former high-ranking officer in Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard. It is believed he possessed valuable information the government of Iran would not want shared with the CIA, including knowledge of Iran's secret nuclear activities and Iran's relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In late December, the claim emerged that he had died in an Israeli prison cell. But the reliability of that information is now in question.
Knowledge Of Iran's Nuclear Activities And Hezbollah
In late 2006 Asgari left Iran, apparently without authorization, says Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli specialist in Iranian affairs.
"He went to Syria, crossed the border into Turkey, and he disappeared into thin air," Javedanfar says.
Asgari apparently put himself into the hands of the CIA or the Mossad — Israel's secret service — says Karim Sadjadpour, who follows Iran for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"For the CIA or for the Mossad, someone like Ali Reza Asgari would really be a treasure-trove of information," says Sadjadpour.
In the three years since his disappearance, reports have surfaced that Asgari provided information on a secret uranium enrichment site in Iran. And that he also provided information that led to the Israeli bombing of a possible nuclear site in Syria in 2007.
For many years Asgari had been the key Iranian liaison with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it is likely he provided much information on Hezbollah, including information on one of its most dangerous characters, Imad Mughniyah.
Mughniyah was probably behind a number of devastating terrorist attacks on U.S. targets in Lebanon. He himself was killed by a car bomb two years ago in Syria, and it has been suggested that Asgari provided information that helped his assassins.
Breaking With Iran's Government
Why did Asgari, such a key figure in Iran's Revolutionary Guard, defect? The answer may be simple. When he returned to Iran from assignments in Lebanon, about a decade or so ago, he was thrown in jail and accused of moral corruption, says CEIP's Sadjadpour.
"And he was also accused of financial corruption. That he was skimming off the top in various arms deals," Sadjadpour says. "And he was brutally tortured when he was in prison."
According to some who know Asgari, it was after this torture that he decided to break with Iran's government.
Little is known of what happened to Asgari after he surfaced briefly in Turkey three years ago. But those following this case assumed he was taken somewhere in the U.S.
So it was a surprise when a report posted on the Internet in late December, claiming a source in Israel's Defense Ministry, asserted that Asgari died in an Israeli prison cell, either by suicide or by murder by the Israelis.
Sadjadpour says he's skeptical. "The idea that he would either have committed suicide or died in an Israeli prison doesn't make any sense to me, especially if you are operating under the assumption that this was someone who was extremely disaffected, that he defected on his own. He wasn't kidnapped or lured," Sadjadpour says. "And he was a very important source of information. There's no need to kill someone who is openly cooperating and providing you with information."
But this story was taken up by the news media in Iran — and the Iranian government asked the United Nations and the Red Cross to help bring Asgari's body back to Iran.
Javedanfar does not believe Asgari died in Israel, and he says he has his suspicions about the Iranian government's motives.
Others Who Have Defected
There have been other cases. One nuclear scientist who defected to the U.S. but then returned last year to Iran has reportedly been imprisoned in Tehran. And several individuals connected to Iran's nuclear program have been killed by car bombs over the past year.
Asgari's is not an isolated case, Sadjadpour says. "I think that there are dozens of individuals within the Iranian government who are extremely disaffected. And the Iranian government recognizes it's vulnerable to these types of defections," he says.
And given the difficulties Iran's nuclear program has experienced recently, the clandestine efforts to disrupt the program may just be paying off.