Vanished since 2006: Alleged collaboration of IRGC commander with the U.S.

Vanished since 2006: Alleged collaboration of IRGC commander with the U.S.

Shafaq News / Iran International shed light on former Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Ali-Reza Asgari in an extensive report, with narratives suggesting his collaboration with the US intelligence agency and disclosure of "significant secrets", some of which led to the assassination of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh and others reaching Israel regarding Syria's military nuclear reactor.

Ali-Reza Asgari has been found living in the United States under a new identity, according to exclusive findings by Iran International.

Since 2006, the former deputy defense minister’s disappearance has been the subject of extensive speculation – shrouded in much mystery.

Iran International's months-long investigation shed an unprecedented and comprehensive light on the life and defection of the Iranian General, unveiling exclusive details about the critical intelligence he provided to the Americans and the instrumental role he played in preventing Washington from launching a war against Tehran over its nuclear weapons program in 2007.

Speaking to Iran International under the condition of anonymity, the report draws on interviews with three US intelligence officials, a senior European diplomatic source, a former IRGC commander, a relative of Asgari’s wife, and three individuals who were once Asgari's acquaintances and colleagues.

Alias Undercover: General Ali-Reza Asgari's Secret Life In The US

Former high-ranking IRGC General Ali-Reza Asgari is currently in the US, living under a new identity in one of its 50 states, Iran International has learned.

This revelation is based on interviews with three American intelligence sources and a senior European diplomatic source.

These sources also confirm that Asgari has changed his state of residence several times over these 17 years since his defection.

While the Islamic Republic has suffered numerous security setbacks in recent years, many are due to the betrayal of its confidants, including Asgari’s notable defection.

With the exception of the 2018 security breach that led to the extraction of nuclear documents from Iran and the exposure of Assadollah Asadi's terrorist mission in Europe, Asgari’s defection has caused the greatest security damage to the Islamic Republic in recent decades.

Over the years, the Iranian regime has shown a strong inclination for retribution against defectors. Shahram Amiri, a nuclear scientist who defected to the US, returned to Iran due to threats against his family and was subsequently executed.

Asgari, it seems, has so far cleverly avoided letting any familial ties become a vulnerability – and has not returned to Iran.

The Disappearance: Asgari Vanishes In Turkey

On December 9, 2006, during a trip to Turkey, Ali-Reza Asgari would switch off his cell phone – never to be heard from or seen again.

The retired IRGC General had left Tehran for Damascus some time before his arrival in Istanbul.

Just two days before his mysterious disappearance, he checked into the 5-star Ceylan Hotel in the heart of the city.

Over a month after Asgari vanished, Tehran notified Interpol.

"Iranian authorities reported the disappearance of this former military official to Interpol on January 25, 2007, but they informed us of the incident on February 4, 2007," a Turkish government source told Iran International.

Contrary to many Western media reports, Asgari disappeared well before the purported date of February 7, 2007 – which is close to when Iran briefed Turkey.

It would take the Iranian government nearly three months to publicly confirm and acknowledge Asgari’s disappearance at a Foreign Ministry press conference – which occurred days after the news had already broken in the media.

Various international media began citing Western intelligence sources, reporting that Asgari had been in contact with the CIA and had willingly defected to the United States.

His wife Ziba Ahmadi refuted those claims, instead suggesting that he was in Syria and Turkey on business – allegedly connected to the olive oil trade. Some of Asgari’s friends echoed her assertion, saying he was on a business trip though other friends and former Iranian officials later claimed Asgari had sought asylum.

Over the years, other Iranian regime officials have also claimed that Mossad or CIA abducted the retired IRGC commander.

In the years following Asgari’s disappearance, dozens of reports emerged – leaving many questions unanswered.

Did the former General go to the US voluntarily? Was he already eagerly cooperating with Western intelligence agencies? Was Asgari’s defection a major coup for the US intelligence community? Or, had he been doing so for many years? Was he transferred to a NATO base in Germany? Was he being interrogated?

On record, Western officials appeared unable to answer questions about Asgari’s whereabouts.

When asked about Asgari's presence in Germany, Franz Josef Jung, the then-Minister of Defense, refrained from dismissing the claim instead saying: "I cannot say anything on this issue."

Similarly, Sean McCormack, the spokesman for the US State Department at the time, offered no confirmation or denial about Asgari's presence in the US, stating, "I couldn’t tell you.”

But, reports persisted that Asgari was sharing sensitive intelligence with the West.

By the end of 2007, it was reported that the information obtained from Asgari was so confidential it was sent directly to the head of the CIA: "People who would normally know, and should know, are completely out of the loop."

Several years later, in 2014, author Kai Bird wrote about Asgari’s disappearance in his book “The Good Spy”, that based on 40 intelligence sources Asgari was given asylum in the US in exchange for information about Iran's nuclear program.

In the book a Bush administration official, in conversation about Bush's decision to grant Asgari asylum in 2007, said: "At the unclassified level, I cannot elaborate on this issue."

For 17 years – the former General’s fate has been shrouded in mystery.

Today, based on interviews with a senior European diplomatic source and three American intelligence sources, Iran International has exclusively established a clear narrative of Asgari's disappearance.

After arriving in Turkey, the former IRGC General was taken—with his consent—by American operatives to a US military base in Germany. About two months later, he was transferred to the US, where he continues to live today under a new identity within the witness protection program.

Defections to the US were not completely uncommon – several scientists active in Iran's nuclear program had fled the country as part of a secret CIA programme, dubbed “the Brain Drain”.

That programme aimed to undermine Iran's nuclear ambitions, by persuading scientists and key officials involved to defect to America.

Asgari allegedly had gone to the US as part of that very programme.

"These individuals are always encouraged to cooperate with intelligence, but many do not. Nonetheless, merely severing their ties with Iran is considered a victory for Western intelligence," US intelligence sources told Iran International.

Asgari’s case though was an exception: he was neither a scientist nor a key official in Iran’s nuclear program.

Yet, the intelligence he would ultimately provide to the West was so crucial that an Israeli military official characterized him as a “gold mine”.

In at least four instances, this “golden source” would offer up intelligence to the US that led to long-term foreign policy consequences – most notably in regards to Iran’s nuclear program.

Asgari’s Turn: Was He Recruited as a Spy in Thailand?

Asgari's profile certainly made him a desirable target for recruitment.

Having served in several high-profile positions within the influential Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Asgari was a former commander of the IRGC in Lebanon, the previous chief of IRGC operations, and the deputy inspector of the Ministry of Defense during Mohammad Khatami's presidency.

In an apparent souring of Asgari’s relationship with parts of the regime’s apparatus in the early 2000s, he was arrested over alleged corruption charges and jailed for 18 months.

He was immediately retired mid-2004 upon his release – nearly 2.5 years before he would leave Iran for good.

At the time of his disappearance, Asgari had two wives, four daughters, and a son.

Before his last trip to Syria and Turkey, Asgari’s wife Ziba Ahmadi mentioned that he had also traveled to Thailand. It is believed that there, Asgari may have met with CIA agents.

"Thailand has long been a favorite location for Western intelligence services to recruit spies from Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. It's said that the CIA might have recruited Asgari during one of his trips while he was the deputy at the Ministry of Defense, but in my opinion, considering that he turned against the Islamic Republic after the ruthless interrogations during his detention, Asgari probably initiated contact with the CIA during this trip to Thailand," a US intelligence source told Iran International.

A Critical Shift: How Ali-Reza Asgari's Intelligence Altered US War Plans on Iran's Nuclear Program

Asgari’s transfer to the US was a well-kept secret for years – even within the US intelligence apparatus.

"At least until the release of the National Intelligence Estimate in December 2007, only a limited number of top officials in the CIA, White House, Pentagon, and a few other American intelligence agencies involved in this case knew about this significant intelligence achievement," a US intelligence source told Iran International.

Every year, the 16 US intelligence agencies compile a secret National Intelligence Estimate – or NIE – on a national security topic for the President, who, along with the Director of National Intelligence, can declassify any portion of it.

But, what was in that 2007 NIE?

Much of the assessment, spanning 147 pages with 9 of them declassified, appears to have focused on Iran's nuclear intentions and capabilities.

“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program. We also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons … We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop,” it stated.

This decisive statement was made even though these same agencies had asserted in their 2005 assessment that they assessed with “high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure, but [they] do not assess that Iran is immovable”.

These assessments can be crucial. It was, after all, the 2002 NIE, that served as a key piece of evidence for George Bush’s administration to argue that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program posed an immediate threat – ultimately becoming the primary rationale for the initiation of the US-led invasion.

Indeed, at the time, Bush had ordered the Pentagon to plan an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, as revealed in the former President’s memoir: "I directed the Pentagon to study what would be necessary for a strike." He adds: "This would be to stop the bomb clock, at least temporarily."

In 2006 and 2007, the political circles in Washington seriously entertained the notion that the US was planning to attack Iran, an intelligence source told Iran International.

"At that time, there wasn't a day when I wasn't asked about America's plan to attack Iran. Everyone thought a plan was in place and that an attack was imminent, but the publication of the 2007 assessment in early December was like throwing cold water on fire. It effectively diluted all speculations about a potential attack on Iran, and if there indeed had been a plan, it was practically shelved," the source said.

In a book published by the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence regarding the outcomes and significance of the 2007 NIE, critics argued that the presented judgment weakened any rationale for military action against Iran.

The 2007 assessment suggested that Iran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program was a response to increased international scrutiny and pressure following the revelation of its previously undeclared nuclear activities.

From the assessment, some intelligence analysts concluded that applying targeted political and economic pressure – rather than military action – can effectively influence Iran's nuclear ambitions. Some went further, arguing that the intelligence community's assessment was a preemptive strike against the Bush administration, discouraging it from its hasty plans to attack Iran.

But, what really caused the seemingly drastic turnaround of the 2007 NIE – and stopped a potential attack on Iran?

Just a few days after the 2007 assessment's publication, the Guardian reported that diplomatic and security sources in Washington said the new assessment was the result of physical information likely obtained from Asgari.

The New York Times reported that new insights into Iran's nuclear program came from wiretapped conversations between two Iranian officials, one identified by The Wall Street Journal as Mohsen Fakhrizadeh – an Iranian nuclear physicist and scientist.

In a 2006 conversation, Fakhrizadeh mentioned cuts to the military nuclear program's budget since 2003 and the closure of a specific project. The New York Times added that Asgari had verified these conversations in his CIA reports. Additionally, Israeli sources told The Times of London that Asgari had disclosed details about Iran's nuclear program to American intelligence.

An analytical report by the Arms Control Institute in 2010 said that Asgari's provided information confirmed the non-military nature of the nuclear program.

Intelligence sources speaking with Iran International believe the most crucial information Asgari provided was related to Iran's nuclear program – with significant consequences: "After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, while George Bush named Iran as part of the 'axis of evil' and the Islamic Republic was accused of attempting to build a nuclear bomb, perhaps only one piece of news could sideline the idea of an American attack on Iran: Tehran's cessation of efforts to build the bomb."

One of the intelligence sources indicates that the dramatic shift in understanding Iran's nuclear program was based on tangible evidence. This evidence, likely including tapes, documents, and detailed information provided by Asgari to the CIA, was pivotal in changing the perception of the nature of Iran's nuclear activities.

"The recorded voice of Fakhrizadeh is from 2006. After his name appeared in the laptop documents, Fakhrizadeh was fully protected, and naturally, his communications were highly secure. In this situation, in my opinion, Ali-Reza Asgari, due to his friendship and access, was someone who could intentionally and systematically have a phone or in-person conversation with Fakhrizadeh, and those talks must have been recorded there," the source said.

The documents from the referenced laptop, which first introduced Fakhrizadeh's name, reached Western intelligence in mid-2004. But, doubts about their authenticity and expert confirmation that some photos were fake meant they led to no specific action against Fakhrizadeh.

Ultimately, it was Asgari who decisively confirmed Fakhrizadeh’s identity and significant role to the Americans – nearly three years after the initial appearance of the laptop documents, multiple sources confirmed to Iran International.

"Asgari provided his name and information as the director and mastermind of Iran's nuclear program to the Americans," the sources said.

The immediate result was the inclusion of Fakhrizadeh's name in the UN sanctions under Security Council Resolution 1747 on March 24, 2007.

In 2020, Israeli’s Mossad assassinated Fakhrizadeh in a reported road ambush about 70 km from Tehran, using an autonomous satellite-operated gun.

Operation Orchard: Asgari's Tip-off and destruction of a secret Syrian Nuclear Reactor

But, the intelligence Asgari offered up was not just related to Iran’s own nuclear activities – it would also help the West in identifying a covert Syrian nuclear reactor.

On September 6, 2007, at midnight, the Israeli Air Force’s Squadron 69 bombed and destroyed a military complex in Deir al-Zor, Syria.

Months after the airstrike, the US declared that the targeted complex was a nuclear site with military objectives, constructed with North Korean assistance. Four years later, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that the facility Israel destroyed in 2007 was indeed a nuclear reactor.

Once again, it was Asgari who had provided crucial information about Syria's nuclear project in Deir al-Zor – leading directly to its identification and subsequent Israeli airstrike on the Al Kibar reactor at this site.

Confirming Asgari’s role a few years later was Hans Rühle, the former head of planning staff at the German Ministry of Defense and former commander of NATO headquarters in Germany.

Rühle also highlighted a significant oversight by the intelligence community – were it not for Asgari’s intelligence.

“No one in the American and Israeli intelligence communities had heard about this nuclear site until then. The recent case was even more embarrassing because the Israeli government had always claimed there was nothing in Syria they did not know about,” Rühle said.

From Ally to Adversary: Asgari's Role in the Assassination of a Hezbollah Leader

Asgari's network of connections also reached deep into Lebanon and the intelligence he shared with the Americans, in all likelihood, led to the assassination of one of the “world's most lethal and capable terrorists”.

Imad Mughniyeh, known as Hajj Radwan, a senior Hezbollah figure, was accused of involvement in several bombings, murders, kidnappings, and hijackings between 1983 and 1994 and lived a secret life for years.

How did this covert commander end up being killed in a CIA-Mossad joint operation in 2008 in Damascus?

After Asgari's defection, Robert Baer, a former CIA officer in Beirut, confirmed that Asgari was indeed a key Iranian contact with Mughniyeh, providing a wealth of intelligence about Hezbollah.

Years later, reports further suggested that Asgari may have provided information to lead to the assassination, and that he may have given up Mughniyeh's secret residence. The Washington Post's investigative report emphasized that his hiding place in Damascus was identified by the CIA a year before his death.

A former colleague of Asgari, exclusively revealed to Iran International, that Asgari had a very close relationship with Mughniyeh.

"Among those who had a history of commanding the Lebanon Corps, Reza had the closest and most intimate friendship with Mughniyeh due to the long time he was there and his role in organizing Hezbollah and solidifying Mughniyeh's position in it," the former colleague said.

Corroborating previous reports, an intelligence source speaking to Iran International, says there are indications that Asgari was behind the revelation of Mughniyeh's hideout.

"According to the Washington Post, the CIA and Mossad found his hideout around January 2007, precisely when Asgari, shortly after defecting to the CIA, was cooperating with them," the source said.

"The Washington Post report gives a complete picture of the operation against Mughniyeh, and so I think it was a deliberate leak of information. However, naturally, the sources of that report would not compromise the security of someone who some security analysts call the most valuable intelligence asset of his time," another intelligence source told Iran International.

The Rise of Major General Asgari: From Kurdistan to Lebanon

But, how exactly did Asgari rise from a simple member of the Islamic Revolution Committee of Shahr-e-Rey to the rank of Major General – and eventually, of the most crucial assets to Western intelligence?

Asgari was born on January 10, 1961 in Shahr-e Rey, about 20 km southeast of Tehran.

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, he first became a member of the Islamic Revolution Committee of Shahr-e-Rey and subsequently joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

For nearly a decade, he served in Iran's Kurdistan province, leading IRGC units in cities such as Sardasht, Marivan, and Sanandaj, and ultimately ascended to the position of IRGC commander of Kurdistan in 1986.

After his mission Kurdistan ended in 1988, his talent and extensive experience in guerrilla warfare led to his immediate deployment as an IRGC commander to Lebanon.

Asgari became the first full-term IRGC commander in Lebanon, serving there for five years. His tenure coincided with the early conflicts between Amal and Hezbollah. Given Syria's support for Amal, the Islamic Republic was concerned about the potential threat to Hezbollah's existence due to Syrian reactions.

Asgari played a pivotal role in resolving the conflicts between Amal and Hezbollah. According to Esmail Ahmadi-Moghadam, Asgari was instrumental in transforming Hezbollah into a fully structured organization with comprehensive military, intelligence, cultural, and political components.

A former IRGC commander explained to Iran International that one key outcome—or necessity—of Hezbollah's organizational transformation under Asgari's guidance was its integration into Lebanon's political process.

Under Asgari's command, with the goal of integrating Hezbollah into Lebanon's political framework, all remaining hostages held by the group were progressively released. This culminated in the liberation of the last European hostage in June 1992, effectively bringing an end to the hostage crisis in Lebanon.

The same former IRGC commander says it was Asgari who ultimately "convinced the higher authorities in Tehran to dissolve the Lebanese Islamic Jihad in 1992 due to its severe infamy and the obsolescence of its existence, integrating Mughniyeh fully under Hezbollah's and its leadership’s control”.

Correcting the record: Asgari's Misattributed Role in the 1983 Beirut Bombings

While much has been written about Asgari's profile and his activities with the IRGC, many reports have incorrectly identified him as the commander of the Lebanese IRGC during the 1983 bombings of the American embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut.

That includes previous reports by The Washington Post, The Times of London, The New York Times, and Kai Bird’s investigative book The Good Spy.

Iran International’s extensive research suggests that Asgari was not involved in the Beirut bombings in the early 1980s – as other individuals held the position of IRGC commander in Lebanon before him during that period.

Iran International's investigation shows at least six commanders leading the IRGC in Lebanon before Asgari's tenure, clarifying that was not directly involved in those events:

● Ahmad Motevaselian was the first IRGC commander in Lebanon and Syria, but he was abducted and went missing in Beirut on July 5, 1982.

● Mansour Kooshk-Mohseni briefly succeeded Motevaselian as the IRGC commander.

● Ahmad Kan'ani Moghaddam took over until the summer of 1983, which included the period of the deadly attack on the American embassy in Beirut.

● Hossein Dehghan was in command from the summer of 1983 to early fall 1984, during which the attacks on the US and French marine barracks occurred on October 23, 1983.

● Hossein Moslehpour (Moslehniah) led from 1984 for about a year.

● Mohammad Reza Naqdi followed in 1985, with Seyed Ahmad Avaei serving as the deputy commander from 1984 to 1988

Jailed for corruption: Asgari turns against the regime

But, when exactly did Asgari turn against the system – and why?

A former colleague of Ali-Reza Asgari told Iran International that after his return from Lebanon, Asgari first served nearly three years as the chief of IRGC operations before being appointed as the commander of the Tehran Corps for approximately a year.

In 1997, during then-President Mohammad Khatami's administration, Asgari became the deputy inspector of the Ministry of Defense – a position he held until his arrest by the ministry's intelligence protection unit in late 2002, resulting in an 18-month incarceration.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, mentioned in an NPR interview that Asgari was arrested on moral and financial corruption charges: "he was brutally tortured when he was in prison”.

After 18 months in prison, Asgari had turned disillusioned, angry and mentally disturbed, his friends told The Financial Times.

A relative of Asgari told Iran International that at the time of his arrest, "there was discussion in Tehran's political circles that this IRGC commander was detained on charges of financial and moral corruption, and Ziba Ahmadi, his first wife, was one of the complainants regarding his extramarital affair."

In conversation with Iran International, a former IRGC commander stated that "during one of the initial interrogation sessions, Asgari slapped the judge who was questioning him, which exacerbated his situation."

The same source also confirmed that during his detention, "Asgari was greatly harassed and tortured by the intelligence protection interrogators."

Asgari was eventually released from prison through the mediation of influential friends, including Esmaeil Ahmadi-Moghadam, the then-commander of the national police, who had collaborated with him in Kurdistan, and Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, the inspector of Ali Khamenei's office at the time.

As Ziba Ahmadi, Asgari's first wife, reported, he retired prematurely at the rank of Major General in 2004 at the age of 44, following his release from prison. He then reportedly ventured into the olive trade business.

Tracing Asgari: Iran's Quest for the IRGC General in US Negotiations

Years after Asgari's disappearance, Ahmadi-Moghaddam disclosed that the IRGC general had visited his office the day before his trip to Syria, following which he went missing.

"He said we might not see each other again. I've come here to tell you something that you should follow up on later," Ahmadi-Moghadadm said of the meeting.

Since then, and despite official propaganda, the Islamic Republic has come to believe that Asgari did indeed defect.

That has not stopped the state from trying to locate him.

Three months after Asgari's disappearance in Turkey, Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent and CIA contractor, vanished on Iran’s Kish Island.

The timing fueled speculation that Iranian authorities might have detained Levinson as retribution for Asgari's defection.

According to a Reuters report, during the 2015 Iran-US prisoner exchange talks, after the US inquired about Levinson's status, the Iranian team stated they would provide information on Levinson if the Americans disclosed Asgari's whereabouts in return.

The New York Times also reported that during the 2016 negotiations between Iran and the US, Iran had at least twice expressed readiness to share information about Levinson if the Americans provided details on Asgari's location.

But, Iranian security and military officials continue to deny these claims to the Iranian public.

In his latest statement about Asgari, former Brigadier General Ali Fazli, the deputy coordinator of the IRGC, referred to Asgari twice during a speech commemorating the start of the Iran-Iraq war.

Fazli, once referring to him as "the late Asgari", expressed hope that "Haj Reza Asgari is alive and will return to the bosom of Islam".

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