x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Missing Iranian general may have 'died in Israeli jail'

Some say the former deputy minister, who vanished four years ago, lives in the West and that Tehran is exploiting claims of his death.

TEHRAN // An Iranian former deputy defence minister, who mysteriously vanished during a trip to Turkey four years ago, may recently have died in an Israeli prison, according to unsubstantiated reports.

But others insist that Gen Ali-Reza Asgari is alive and living safely in a western country - and argue that Iran is exploiting claims of his death to refute the embarrassing possibility that he defected to West.

Gen Asgari travelled to Turkey with his family in late 2006 or early 2007 via Syria, where he had private business interests in trading olives or olive oil. After checking into a hotel in Istanbul, Iran claims he was snatched by Israel's external security service, Mossad, or the US.

Since then the trail went mostly dead, although there had been unconfirmed reports he had defected and was living in the United States.

In recent weeks, however, there was a flurry of Israeli press reports that a "Prisoner X" had committed suicide in an Israeli jail.

These rumours were picked up by an American journalist and blogger, Richard Silverstein, who has followed the case. He speculated that the unidentified prisoner was probably Gen Asgari - and suggested that he may not have killed himself but was murdered.

Israeli journalists swiftly countered that Prisoner X was not Gen Asgari.

Nevertheless, Tehran promptly accused Israel of "state-sponsored terrorism" and on Friday urged the United Nations to help clarify Gen Asgari's fate.

In a letter to the UN secreatry general, Ban Ki-moon, Iran's caretaker foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said: "Without a doubt the release of these reports further strengthens suspicions that Asgari was abducted by the Zionist regime." Israel, he added, is "directly responsible for his life".

Other Iranian officials joined in with cries that "the Zionists have assassinated" Gen Asgari, and dismissed as "totally illogical" any notion that he could have taken his own life.

Kazem Jalali, the spokesman for the Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, said that Gen Asgari must have been tortured and killed.

Other officials said he had been "martyred". Gen Asgari's sister, meanwhile, told Iranian state media that he would never have committed suicide.

Some analysts suggest the Iranian regime has seized on reports of his death because Gen Asgari was due to testify at the special tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. The tribunal is expected to implicate members of the Iranian-backed Hizbollah movement in that murder, which had far-reaching regional repercussions.

Iran will now attempt to discredit any such testimony by arguing Gen Asgari is dead and that anyone claiming to be him is an imposter, an Iranian friend of his wrote on his blog.

Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, who lives in Europe, insists that Gen Asghari is living safely in a western country.

He claims that the general called him for advice after he arrived with his family in Damascus where he had been either on a pilgrimage or a business trip.

Mr Ebrahimi claims that Gen Asgari acted on his advice to hire a car and flee to Turkey to defect. Once in Istanbul, he asked the UN and US for asylum and finally left Turkey for the US in February 2007. Gen Asgari, he says, later contacted him from Washington DC and Texas.

"There is no reason why Asgari should have been kept in jail, because he left Iran on his own free will and defected to the West," Mr Ebrahimi wrote in his latest blog posting.

When Gen Asgari disappeared in Istanbul, US media lost no time in claiming that Gen Asgari, who had served under Iran's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, had fled Iran of his own volition and was providing sensitive information on Iran's ties to Hizbollah.

Gen Asgari is said to have been a commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards' elite Al Qods force in Lebanon in the mid-1990s.

The Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Aharonoth, claimed at the time of Gen Asgari's disappearance that Mossad had orchestrated his defection.

Politico, a US-based political news website, on Friday quoted an Iranian-American pro-democracy activist knowledgeable about the case insisting that Gen Asgari was never in Israel and the story that he died there - or died at all - is untrue.

"The news is a complete fabrication and a fantasy," Pooya Dayanim told Politico.

Meanwhile, Yossi Melman, an intelligence correspondent for Israel's daily Haaretz newspaper, wrote this week that Israeli security services should publicly deny the rumours about Gen Ashgari.

"Anyone who knows something about these subjects, and is familiar with relevant precedents, could conclude that the chances of Asgari finding asylum in Israel, or being forcibly brought here, are negligible," Melman wrote.

In March 2007, Britain's Sunday Times newspaper reported that Gen Asgari, who is in his mid-50s, had been spying on Iran since 2003 when he was recruited on an overseas business trip.

He fled, it said, with the help of western intelligence agencies when he realised his cover was about to be blown. After being spirited out of Turkey, his first stop was a Nato base in Germany where Gen Asgari, "a very wealthy man", underwent debriefing, the newspaper said.

He carried documents disclosing "Iran's links to terrorists in the Middle East", but it was not thought he had details of Iran's nuclear programme, it added.