Is Ali Reza Asgari, allegedly one of the key players in the 1983 American embassy bombing in Beirut, living under CIA protection in the United States? A new book, published on May 23, argues just that. In The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, a biography of CIA agent Ames, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kai Bird writes that George W. Bush granted Asgari asylum in the United States in 2007, after he traveled to Istanbul via Damascus. According to the book, the administration believed Asgari could provide crucial information on Iran’s nuclear program.
The Revolutionary Guards general and former deputy minister of defense played an important role in setting up Hizbollah, which was responsible for a number of attacks on US citizens in Lebanon, including the embassy attack in April 1983 that claimed the lives of 63 people, including Ames and other CIA agents.
Bird interviewed 40 current and former CIA agents for the book. He claims that Asgari made two phone calls from the United States to an Iranian friend in Germany. The book has received a favorable review in The New York Times.
A CIA spokesman denied Bird’s assertion, and U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf did the same in a tweet on May 20th, writing that Bird had been irresponsible to make “Blind accusations w/o facts.”
Asgari was born in 1960, and joined Iran’s Revolutionary Guards after the 1979 revolution. In the early 1980s, he was involved in operations against Baluchi insurgents in southeast Iran. Nicknamed “Reza Chieftain” by his colleagues, he commanded a battalion of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and was appointed as a military attaché to the Iranian embassy in Beirut. In the mid-1990s he was the Revolutionary Guards’ Chief of Operations and their commander in Tehran. When Mohammad Khatami was elected president, he was appointed deputy defense minister.
Unpopular with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, Asgari left his ministerial role in 2002 after an apparent dispute with defense officials.
It later emerged that Asgari had been in prison in Iran for 15 months before he disappeared in Turkey.
According to Asgari’s wife, he went into the olive oil business, though other reports say his business ventures brought him close to Iran’s nuclear program, which would explain the Bush administration’s willingness to grant him asylum.
On December 7th 2006, he travelled via Damascus to Istanbul and stayed at a hotel in the European part of Istanbul. He was in contact with his family until Saturday December 9th but soon after his phone went silent and his family lost touch with him.
A documentary broadcast after Asgari’s disappearance claimed that his business activities had been a cover that enabled him to bypass sanctions against Iran. It also claimed that he had traveled to Turkey to buy communication equipment to import to Iran.
The Iranian government notified Interpol 17 days after his disappearance, but it took them two months to alert the Turkish authorities. Some in Iran, including Brigadier General Hossein Daqiqi, speculated that Asgari had been abducted by Israel’s Mossad, the CIA and Britain’s MI6. Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Asgari had been kept a prisoner first at the American Air Force Base at Incirlik in Turkey and was later transferred to a NATO base in Germany near Frankfurt.
Many western media outlets, including The New York Times, have reported that Asgari appealed to the United States for asylum, claims that have been denounced by Asgari’s family, and described as ““psychological warfare” in the Iranian press. Iranian officials rejected claims that Asgari had left voluntarily and maintained that he had been abducted, and Fars News Agency published similar claims. In March 2007, Asgari’s wife and daughter lodged a complaint with the Turkish embassy in Tehran and asked for his return. The family followed up the complaint by protesting outside the Turkish embassy in 2008.
In March 2009, Swiss newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung published an article by Hans Ruehle, former chief of the planning staff of the German Defense Ministry, claiming that Asgari had provided information about Iran-funded nuclear projects in Syria, which led to Israel’s attack on a nuclear reactor in Syria in September 2007. In the same week, The Sunday Times reported that he had been working for Western intelligence since 2005.
But amid competing claims and theories as to the fate of Asgari, some Iranian officials have also denied the general’s involvement in Lebanon and refute claims set out in The Good Spy. The Daily Star reports that, according to the Revolutionary Guards , Asgari was based in the Kurdistan region of Iran throughout the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), claiming he could not have played a role in the 1983 bombing. Brigadier General Esmaeil Ahmadi-Moghaddam stated the same in a 2012 speech, included in a documentary of the same year that was uploaded on YouTube and Persian website Bachehaya Ghalam. The documentary includes footage of Asgari in Kurdistan during the 1980s.
In early 2011, some Israeli media reported that Ali Reza Asgari had probably committed suicide in an Israeli security prison. Following these reports, the Iranian Foreign Ministry submitted a memorandum to the UN and stated that Israel was responsible for Asgari’s life.
Spokeswoman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry Marzieh Afkham recently declared that Iran was still communicating with the United Nations and the International Red Cross about the fate of Ali Reza Asgari. Although the mystery of the missing general has been going on for nine years, it has yet to be solved.
At a time when US-Iran relations are at a crucial juncture, these sorts of claims will not be welcome. It will no doubt lead to criticism and even outrage on behalf of some US politicians, particularly those trying to pass a law that would deny a visa to Iran’s UN envoy, Hamid Aboutalebi, who had, at the age of 22, been a translator for Iranian students responsible for the seizure of the US embassy following the 1979 revolution.
Bird’s recent revelations are a new and fascinating chapter in the unsolved mystery of Ali Reza Asgari, reminding politicians, historians, diplomacy experts and the general public once again of the very complex and delicate nature of US-Iran relations.