The General Vanishes
It's been more than two months since General Ali Reza Asgari, former deputy Defense Minister of Iran vanished into thin air in Istanbul. There have been numerous reports in the press speculating on how and why it happened. But mostly there's been silence.
Suddenly, a new account appeared on a Persian language blog, which, if true, would mean that Asgari defected from Iran and applied for political asylum to the United States of his own free will, and utterly de-legitimize repeated attempts by the Iranian regime to suggest that he was somehow kidnapped.
The account appeared promising. After all, it provided documentation -- something all of the rumors, speculation and anonymously sourced news stories haven't provided until now.
There's just one problem - the organizations whose documents these are meant to be, say they are fake.
Either scenario is intriguing in its own right - either one in which the documents are real, the denials are a cover-up and Asgari's defection is being kept top secret -- not only by the U.S. government, but by the United Nations.
Or the alternative - that somebody, for some reason, had enough interest in promoting a false tale of a deal and defection with the U.S. to go to the trouble of whipping up these falsified papers and feeding them to the Persian-language blogosphere.
The documents come from the blog of Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, someone who claims to know Asgari and who himself defected from Iran in February of 2006. Ebrahimi received the documents which appeared to prove that Asgari sought refugee status from the United Nations, from a source he describes as "a friend who is 100 percent reliable: who works for an unnamed organization in Turkey."
He says that he initiated the search. "I am very interested in this story because I knew Asgari personally," Ebrahimi told Pajamas Media by telephone from his home in Turkey. "We served together in the Revolutionary Guards."
Ebrahimi, who today describes himself a human rights activist, graduate student and author living in Turkey and Germany. According to his Wikipedia entry, he is a former Iranian soldier who served as the media attach√© of the Iranian embassy in Beirut for two years from 1997 to 1998. He is a graduate student in Ankara. He is best-known for appearing in a controversial videotape in the year 2000, apparently confessing to a link between the hardline Iranian political and religious leaders and violent faction in Iran, revealing a number of their inside secrets, for which he was sentenced to two years in prison.
The following is a translation of the story as published in Ebrahimi's Persian-language blog:
"After lengthy investigations from sources in Iran and Turkey, I hereby describe reveal the untold events of the Asgari affair:
Asgari, after staying for one day in a hotel called Arshan in Ankara, with the help of a Mr. Green, a security officer of the US embassy in Ankara, applied to the office of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees with a request political asylum.
Due to the sensitivity of his case, and the fact that US embassy brought them the case; his asylum application was accepted only after 5 days. After the United Nations accepted his file, it was then referred to Istanbul to a refugee organization called the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC). After spending four days under the protection of two US security agents in the Hilton Hotel of Ankara, Asgari set off for Istanbul. There, with the help of Mehmet Yilmaz, a local employee of ICMC, a hotel room was reserved for him at the Jiran hotel -- the hotel the ICMC normally uses.
Asgari, and the protection officers however, did not check into the hotel themselves, staying at the Marmara hotel in Istanbul instead.
On the 25th of January, Asgari received the official approval of asylum to the US, and on 7th of February, he left Istanbul for the US."
The International Catholic Migration Commission's website says that it "serves and protects the needs of uprooted people, refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants, with operations in 30 countries of the world, including Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey...advocates for durable solutions and rights-based policies directly and through a worldwide network of 172 member organizations." The organization's "expertise and core programming consists of refugee resettlement, return and reintegration, local integration, work with extremely vulnerable individuals, counter-trafficking and rescue, NGO capacity-building, technical cooperation and government institution-building, emergency response and advocacy."
When Asgari first disappeared, Tehran quickly dispatched a team to Turkey who, with the help of Iranian embassy there and Turkish officials were supposed to determine how Asgari went missing.
Confused and conflicting stories emerged as to whether indeed, his family had left Iran, and what appeared to be a propaganda effort discounting the theory that Asgari had fled Iran of his own volition were circulated by the regime.
Accusations were hurled by regime officials in the Iranian press that Asgari had been the victim of a sophisticated kidnapping plot by Israel and the United States aimed at uncovering Iran's secrets.
On March 19, Iranian media reported ten people claiming to be Asgari's family, including two women saying they were his wives, protested in front of the Turkish embassy in Tehran, charging that Turkish security forces had handed Asgari over to Israel.
Ebrahimi says he can clear up the confusion: "Asgari has three wives - 2 ex wives and one current wife. His current wife left Iran with one of their children and is currently with Asgari in the United States. The two ex-wives were forced by the Iranian security services to demonstrate in front of the Turkish embassy in Tehran, in order to lend credibility to their claim that Asgari was kidnapped."
He further noted in his blog that recently, the silence from the Iranian authorities on the case has been deafening. "Now, more than 2 months after he went missing; the sudden silence of Iran's press and diplomatic machine strengthens the belief that Asgari has in fact not gone missing and that according to his own will he went to an unnamed place in order to seek asylum."
The documents he supplies would have backed them up.
When contacted by Pajamas Media, Emma Viaud, communications officer for the ICMC said, "that the validity of the ICMC letters that appear in the article is not clear, we have reason to believe that they are fraudulent." Later, when pressed for a more definitive statement, she said, "I can now confirm that the documents that appear in the article are forgeries and have not been issued by or with the knowledge of ICMC."
The UNHCR spokesman Abeer Etefa said that "after a quick search, it does not appear that we have a person with this name granted a refugee status. Also the document that you referred to on the blog seems to be not authentic."
The missing piece of the story, as Ebrahimi sees it, is exactly how Asgari made it to Turkey.
He writes of what sounds like a major failure of Iranian intelligence.
"According to Islamic republic laws," he explains, "a senior military official, even five years after his retirement, has to have permission to leave Iran from counter intelligence organization, and Asgari did leave with the permission of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp Counter Intelligence unit. He had permission to visit the tomb of prophets Zeinab and Raghiye. On the 3rd of January last year, while holding a pilgrimage visa , he flew with Mahan airlines to Damascus.
What is interesting is that the type of visa he carried was for religious pilgrimage purposes only.
This type of visa can only be used on one trip, and for a certain determined time only, to visit holy religious places in Iraq and Syria and Mecca. It can not be used for visiting other countries such as Turkey and is not valid for that purpose. Therefore it raises the question, how on the 7th of January Asgari was able to get himself across the Syrian - Turkish land border to Ankara and then to Istanbul?"
According to Ebrahimi, Asgari was no stranger to keeping secrets and should have plenty to share with U.S. intelligence.
While in charge of weapons purchasing department of the IRGC, "through the creation of tens of front companies inside Iran, in Persian Gulf countries, and in Malaysia and Sweden, he fulfilled the purchasing requirements of the IRGC. Upon the appointment of Ali Shamkhani as Defense Minister in the government of Khatami, Asgari was appointed as the deputy in charge of preparation and logistics...for equipment for the country's air force and missile system. In addition, Asgari was one of the technical advisors of the Kala electric company which is one of the main companies in Iran which the government uses to pursue its nuclear program."
Who he may be advising now - is anyone's guess.