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In murky Mideast, Iran spins a thriller

A top officer of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards vanishes. Could that be why 15 Britons were seized?

By DAVID IGNATIUS Washington Post Writers Group
Published March 30, 2007


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BERLIN - We are in a season of skullduggery in the Middle East, with a strange series of disappearances that all involve the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. The murky saga is a reminder that the real power in Iran may lie with this secretive organization, which spawned Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Revolutionary Guards orchestrated the seizure of 15 British sailors and marines last week in the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran. The British say they have technical data to prove their people were outside Iran's territorial waters when they were captured, and they have protested vigorously to Iranian diplomats. But the Iranian Foreign Ministry doesn't seem to know anything about the case. Indeed, it may have been one of the indirect targets.

The Revolutionary Guards seized the hostages, if that's the right word, at a time when they are under intense and growing pressure. U.S. troops captured five of their intelligence operatives last January in the Iraqi city of Irbil. Perhaps the Revolutionary Guards commanders wanted some bargaining chips to get their people back.

There are larger forces at play, too. The Revolutionary Guards were targeted in the new U.N. sanctions enacted last weekend against Iran's nuclear program - which, as it happens, is run by the Revolutionary Guards. The elite military group may have wanted to retaliate by imposing its own brute sanctions against Britain, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

European officials note that the provocative move comes at a time of growing speculation about new discussions between the United States and Iran - a dialogue the Revolutionary Guards may oppose. The two nations met in Baghdad this month as part of a regional conference on Iraqi security, and it was expected that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would meet her Iranian counterpart at a followup meeting in Istanbul in April. That meeting may be in jeopardy if the British sailors aren't returned soon.

The Revolutionary Guards may also have hoped to sabotage diplomatic negotiations over the nuclear issue. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said several weeks ago that the United States was getting "pinged all over the world" by Iranian intermediaries who wanted a resumption of negotiations. Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, hinted that message in his recent contacts with the European Union's top diplomat, Javier Solana. But the prospect of nuclear talks may have been blown out of the water, as it were, until the British issue is resolved.

Maybe that was the goal of seizing the sailors. The Revolutionary Guards, after all, can't be happy about curbing the nuclear program that would allow them to project power even more aggressively.

But what's making the Revolutionary Guards so jittery? Why are they behaving as if someone had made off with their family jewels? Maybe that's where the last of the mysterious disappearances comes in.

On Feb. 7, a top Revolutionary Guards officer named Brig. Gen. Ali Reza Asgari vanished in Istanbul. This was no small fish. He was a former deputy defense minister who, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, had been Iran's key operative in Lebanon, helping organize its proxy army, Hezbollah. According to Bob Baer, who was a CIA case officer in Beirut at that time, Asgari was the primary contact for Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, and its most feared terrorist operative, Imad Mughniyah. "Asgari was in the IRGC's chain of command when it was kidnapping and assassinating Westerners in Lebanon in the '80s," Baer wrote in Time.

So what happened to Asgari, the man who knows some of the Revolutionary Guards' most precious secrets? Officials in Washington, Paris and Berlin shrug their shoulders and say, sorry, they just can't be helpful on this one. But a leading Israeli daily, Yedioth Aharonoth, reported soon after Asgari's disappearance that Mossad had organized his defection. The Sunday Times of London speculated on March 11 that Asgari "probably was working for Mossad but believed he was working for a European intelligence agency."

The betting among spy buffs is that Asgari was recruited in what's known as a "false flag" operation. His handlers may be Israelis, but posing as officers of another intelligence service, perhaps even including during the debriefing. Such speculation was piqued two weeks ago when the German defense minister, Franz Josef Jung, was asked during a visit to Turkey whether Asgari was in Germany. "I cannot say anything on this issue," he replied.

In the perverse spy story that is the Middle East, we have started a strange new chapter. This one has killers and kidnappers galore, and a plot to die for.

David Ignatius' e-mail address is davidignatius @washpost.com.

2007, Washington Post Writers Group

[Last modified March 30, 2007, 01:17:53]


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