March 9, 2007 -- 'A VERY big fish" - so Tehran sources de scribe former Deputy Defense Minister Ali-Reza Askari (sometimes called "Asghari" in the West), who disappeared in Istanbul on Sunday.
Askari's disappearance fits an emerging pattern. Since December, the United States and its allies appear to have moved onto the offensive against the Islamic Republic's networks of influence in the Middle East:
* Jordan has seized 17 Iranian agents, accused of trying to smuggle arms to Hamas, and deported them quietly after routine debriefing.
* A number of Islamic Republic agents have been identified and deported in Pakistan and Tunisia.
* At least six other Iranian agents have been picked up in Gaza, where they were helping Hamas set up armament factories.
* In the past three months, some 30 senior Iranian officials, including at least two generals of Revolutionary Guards, have been captured in Iraq.
All but five of the Islamic Republic agents seized in Iraq appear to have been released. One of those released was Hassan Abbasi, nicknamed "the Kissinger of Islam," who is believed to be President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's strategic advisor.
Among those still held by the Americans is one Muhammad Jaafari Sahraroudi, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander wanted by the Austrian police in connection with the murder of three Iranian Kurdish leaders in Vienna in 1989.
All this looks like a message to Tehran that its opponents may be moving on to the offensive in what looks like a revival of tactics used in the Cold War.
But let us return to the "big fish."
A retired two-star general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Askari had just led a military mission to Damascus, the Syrian capital. He was making a private "shopping stopover" in Turkey on his way back to Tehran.
The Iranian mission's task was to lay the foundations for a Syrian armament industry, licensed to manufacture Iranian-designed weapons. The 30 or so experts that had accompanied Askari remained in Syria to work out the technical details.
According to some reports, Askari had stopped over in Istanbul to meet with an unidentified Syrian arms dealer who lives in Paris.
Having at first denied reports of the general's disappearance, Tehran authorities eventually came out with a confirmation. The Islamic Republic's police chief, Gen. Ismail Ahmadi-Muqaddam, issued a statement Tuesday claiming that the missing general had been abducted by a Western intelligence service and taken to "a country in northern Europe."
Foreign Ministry sources in Tehran, however, said that Askari might have defected, possibly to the United States, where he has relatives. Some reports in the Iranian and Arab media suggest that the Israeli secret service Mossad and the CIA are behind Askari's disappearance.
Israel has denied involvement in the general's disappearance, but The London Daily Telegraph speculated on Monday that Askari could have been abducted by Israel to shed light on the whereabouts of Israel Air Force Lt.-Col. Ron Arad, missing since 1986, who might have been held at one point by Iran. Askari was involved in a deal to transfer Arad to Tehran after his capture by the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was quoted Monday as saying Iran was "taking necessary steps" to solve the case: "A director-general from the [foreign] ministry has traveled to Turkey . . . We have asked Turkey to investigate Askari's case."
According to Iranian sources, Askari, in his late 50s, joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRG) at its very start in 1979. He was an associate of Mostafa Chamran, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Iranian origin who returned to Iran when the mullahs seized power in 1979 and helped found the IRG. When Chamran was appointed defense minister two years later, Askari became one of his advisers.
Always in the shadows, Askari was in charge of a program to train foreign Islamist militants as part of Tehran's strategy of "exporting" the Khomeinist revolution.
In 1982-83, Askari (along with Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Mohatashami-Pour) founded the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah and helped set up its first military units. The two men supervised the 1983 suicide attacks on the U.S. Embassy and on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut - killing more than 300 Americans, including 241 Marines. Iranian sources say Askari was part of a triumvirate of Revolutionary Guard officers that controlled Hezbollah's armed units until the end of the '90s.
Askari led the 500-man Iranian military mission in Beirut from 1998 to 2000 before returning home to work for the Strategic Defense Procurement Committee. In that capacity, he often traveled abroad to negotiate arms deals.
Tehran sources claim that Askari was also involved in Iran's controversial nuclear program, which, although presented as a civilian project, is controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. They also say that last November he was appointed a member of the Strategic Defense Planning Commission set up by Ali Khamenei, the "Supreme Guide."
Indeed, Iran is rife with rumors about the case: Askari has been transferred to Romania, where he is being debriefed by the Americans; he had documents with him, mostly related to Iran's military purchases abroad; Israeli efforts to see him (in connection with his years of running Hezballah) have so far failed to meet with success . . .
Whether he defected or was abducted, Askari is a big catch with a mine of information about the activities of the Revolutionary Guard and its elite arm, the Quds Corps, which controls Arab and Turkish radical groups financed by Tehran. Last month, the United States accused the Quds Corps of supplying special projectiles to terrorists in Iraq to kill GIs.
Iranian-born journalist and author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.
Askari is a big catch, with a mine of information about the activities of the Revolutionary Guard.