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Police in Turkey are still trying to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a former top defense official from Iran. Ali Reza Asgari vanished late last year while visiting Istanbul. That's led to speculation that he might have defected or been kidnapped, and that his disappearance could be part of a covert intelligence war between the U.S. and Iran.

NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul.

IVAN WATSON: Ali Reza Asgari is a former deputy defense minister and a senior commander in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He disappeared almost four months ago, soon after checking in to Istanbul's Ceylan Intercontinental, a posh hotel and favored destination for many Middle Eastern travelers.

(Soundbite of song, "As Time Goes By")

WATSON: Asgari's family members say he arrived here on December 7th while traveling on a business trip. Two days later, they say his cell phone went dead, and he hasn't been heard from since. Last month, Iran's top police chief went on record, saying Asgari may have been kidnapped by Western intelligence agencies. The CIA denies it kidnapped Asgari, as does Israel. Pinhas Avivi is the Israeli ambassador to Turkey.

Mr. PINHAS AVIVI (Israel's Ambassador to Turkey): Well, I don't believe that it is - was kidnapped by Israel anyway, because he is not as important as to be kidnapped.

WATSON: Avivi insists that Asgari would be of little intelligence value today. But former CIA operative Robert Baer disagrees, saying Asgari would be a big catch.

Mr. ROBERT BAER (Former CIA Operative): I've been aware of this man for years. Asgari was the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Lebanon at the end of the '80s and '90s. He was a central figure in the taking of hostages, as well as their release. He was part of a group that kidnapped CIA's station chief. He undoubtedly took part in the planning for the Marine bombing in 1983.

WATSON: Now retired from the CIA, Baer suspects Asgari defected to the West.

Mr. BAER: I think it's more like he's defected to a country, somebody who's protecting him. The chances of the CIA or the Pentagon or the Israelis kidnapping somebody in Turkey is very remote, that Turkish police are very good - they would notice.

WATSON: Turkish officials have been very tightlipped, saying only that they are investigating Asgari's disappearance.

Mr. BULENT ALIRIZA (Analyst, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Obviously, the disappearance of such a major figure in the Iranian defense establishment will cause concern on the part of the Iranians that there's been penetration by Western security services, and obviously, Turkey's been involved either passively or actively in the process.

WATSON: Turkish analyst Bulent Aliriza with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says Asgari's disappearance could well be part of a larger puzzle.

Mr. ALIRIZA: There's clearly an intelligence war going on. We've been hearing about Iranian activities in Iraq and the U.S. accusations relating to those activities. The Iranians have been making accusations that the U.S. and the U.K., in particular, have been encouraging ethnic terrorist violence against the Islamic republic.

WATSON: Over the last year, Iranian officials have blamed the U.S. and Britain for a series of bomb attacks and ambushes against government targets in Iranian provinces populated by restive ethnic minorities. That includes the Kurdish-Iranian northwest, the Arab southwest, and most recently, the Baluchi southeast, where 11 Iranian Revolutionary Guards were killed in a bus bombing last February. Retired American intelligence officials like Robert Baer say it would be logical for the U.S. to use disaffected ethnic groups against Tehran.

Mr. BAER: If I were back at the CIA and I wanted to cause problems in Tehran, I would simply take crates of weapons and deliver them to the Iranian Kurds and say go use them. That's all I would have to do.

WATSON: Washington denies any link to the ethnic violence in Iran, but the U.S. has acknowledged detaining a number of Iranian operatives in Iraq in recent months. Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, says the U.S. appears to be targeting particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on multiple fronts across the Middle East.

Professor ABBAS MILANI (Director, Iranian Studies, Stanford University): The fronts are Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria - these are the known fronts. Now, the Persian Gulf and Shatt-al-Arab is added to it because of the engagement of the British.

WATSON: 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 says Tehran raised the issue of the Iranians in U.S. custody during negotiations over the 15 captured Britons.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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