Missing Iranian Underscores Shadowy Skirmishes

A former Iranian deputy defense minister and founding member of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps disappeared while on a personal visit to Istanbul nearly four months ago.

The unsolved mystery has led to speculation that Ali Reza Askari's possible kidnapping or defection could be part of a broader covert intelligence war between the United States and Iran.

By their very nature, covert operations are difficult to confirm. But Middle East experts and former American intelligence officials say a pattern has emerged, indicating that Washington and Tehran are engaging in shadowy skirmishes across the region.

They point to U.S. accusations that Iran is supplying Shiite militias in Iraq with weapons and training, a charge Iran denies.

Meanwhile, Tehran has accused the United States and its ally Britain of being behind a series of bombings and ambushes that have plagued Iranian border provinces populated by disaffected ethnic minorities. They include Iran's Kurdish northwest, the Arab Sunni southwest, and, most recently, the southeastern Baluchistan province of Iran, where a suspected Baluchi militant was publicly executed after a bus bombing in February left 11 Revolutionary Guards dead. The United States denies the charges.

Washington has acknowledged that a number of Iranian operatives were detained in Iraq in recent months. Iraqi Kurdish officials say in January, a top Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander narrowly escaped an American raid on the Iranian Liaison Office in Erbil, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Five Iranians who were captured remain in U.S. custody.

"It is a very complicated, multifront, multifaceted game," says Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University.

"The fronts are Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria. Now, the Persian Gulf and Shatt-al-Arab [waterway] are added to it because of the engagement of the British," says Milani. "And it entails a much more muscular approach by the U.S. government in trying to limit, if not eliminate, Iranian operatives and their activities."

Middle East experts are divided on whether the recent seizure of 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf was Iran's tit-for-tat response to U.S. actions in Iraq and elsewhere.

But a senior Turkish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says Tehran raised the issue of the Iranians in U.S. custody during negotiations over the 15 captured Britons.

Understanding the Case of Ali Reza Askari

Turkish officials say they are trying to solve the mystery surrounding a top former defense official from Iran, who disappeared nearly four months ago in Istanbul, a city that is no stranger to Cold War intrigue.

On Dec. 7, 2006, a former Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander named Ali Reza Askari is believed to have checked in to the Ceylan Intercontinental Hotel.

Askari's family members say he traveled here from Damascus on a private business trip involving the sale of olive oil. Two days later, they say his cell phone went dead. He hasn't been heard from since.

Askari's wife did not ask the Turkish Embassy in Tehran for help in finding her husband until March. Meanwhile, Iran's top police chief, Brig. Gen. Esmaeil Ahmadi-Moqaddam, told Iran's state news agency in late February that he believed Western intelligence agencies kidnapped Askari.

The CIA has denied the charge, as has Israel.

"I don't believe [he] was kidnapped by Israel because he's not important [enough] to be kidnapped," said Israel's ambassador to Ankara, Pinhas Avivi.

Avivi downplayed Askari's intelligence value, calling him "old news."

Former CIA operative Robert Baer disagrees: "He is a big catch."

"I've read Askari's file, I've been aware of this man for years," says Baer, who was stationed in Beirut in the 1980s.

Baer says that Askari, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Lebanon in the late 1980s and '90s, was a "central figure" in the hostage-taking that was prevalent during Lebanon's long civil war, including the 1984 kidnapping of CIA station chief Lt. Col. William F. Buckley. Baer also says that Askari "undoubtedly" took part in the planning of the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed more than 200 Americans.

Now retired from the CIA and a columnist for Time magazine, Baer, like many other Middle East experts, suspects Askari defected.

"I think it's more likely he's defected to a country, somebody's protecting him," Baer says. "The chances of the CIA or the Pentagon or the Israelis kidnapping someone in Turkey is very remote. Turkish police are very good.... They would notice."

Turkish officials have been tight-lipped about Askari, saying only that they are investigating his disappearance.

Since February, Iran has publicly pressed Turkey, one of its neighbors to the west, to find Askari. Though Turkey is a member of NATO and a close military ally of the U.S. and Israel, it is also careful to maintain cordial relations with Iran, with which the Turks share strong trade and cultural links.

"The disappearance of such a major figure in the Iranian defense establishment will cause concern that there's been penetration by Western security services," says Bulent Ali Reza, a Turkish expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Obviously, Turkey's been involved either passively or actively in the process."

A senior Turkish government official was visibly uncomfortable when asked whether he knew what happened to the former Iranian commander. "No comment," the official said. "We must take care to avoid any provocations."

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